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Virtual Work Works, But Don’t Confuse Technology with Change Management

April 3, 2013 - 6 Comments

I was in a brainstorm meeting about my team’s next-generation strategy last week, and we made a number of random connections that knitted together a pretty big idea — the kind of dot-connecting that only happens when people with different (and sometime conflicting) perspectives trust each other in the pursuit of an important goal.

Five of us worked on the idea, but only two of us were in the room physically together. Yes, I’ll say it out loud:  three people were working from home.

Much has been said and written recently about the value of working virtually, and I don’t think you can sub-divide mobility into “at home” and “on the road.” Social technologies, video and mobile platforms make it easy to work from just about anywhere.

But as leaders, we have to resist the temptation to confuse technology with change management — despite our love affair with technology. Any time technology brings a sea-change transformation to the way humans do stuff, especially work stuff, we can’t forget that people work in organizations — and organizations are an amalgam of culture, processes and technology.

All of Cisco’s experience has taught us that technology alone does not create sustainable productivity; it is the way culture supports the behaviors needed to make the technology effective and processes that support and optimize it. Ultimately any organization needs to determine its “system” for collaborating as teams, whether those teams are in the same room all the time or working virtually anywhere in the world. No model is right or wrong; it is what works for the mission of that organization.

For those organizations where work is an outcome, not a place, here are some best practices from The Collaboration Imperative on making virtual work work:

  • Culture Focus on shared goals, not location. Studies show that establishing rapport and trust is a key challenge of working on a virtual team. As leaders, it’s our job to replace uncertainty with trust by articulating your team’s charter and the ground rules of what you can expect from each other. In Cisco, we’ve found that virtual teams exceed expectations when their team charter answers four questions: What is our purpose? What is your role against our purpose? What are our shared goals and how are we measuring success? What is the scope of our work and where are the boundaries? Finally, another simple but profound cultural consideration: be pragmatic about scheduling meetings on a global calendar and rotate start times to accommodate time zones — you will be pleasantly surprised by the reaction of your global peers.
  •  Process: Stop wasting time in meetings. Knowledge workers spend more than half their time in meetings with colleagues or customers, regardless of location. We’ve all been in “meeting hell” where we’re asking basic questions like, “Who called this meeting?” or  “What’s the agenda?” or “What are we trying to accomplish here?”. Any meeting — physical or virtual, but most importantly for virtual — needs discipline. Chapter Six of The Collaboration Imperative is devoted to a “Clarity of Purpose” model for meeting management; where one meeting type is devoted to reporting, such as an “inform” meeting.  Another is devoted to conceptualizing or brainstorming, such as an “exchange” meeting. A final quick tip:  adopt a common vocabulary for making decisions. If “strategy” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone in the meeting, how can any team be effective?
  • TechnologyMake video communications ubiquitous on your team. The social science on body language is pretty clear — 80 or 90% of what we communicate comes from body language. If you can’t see your team, it is hard to know how engaged they are. My strategy brainstorm discussion was hosted in WebEx and we all had our video cameras on. The point isn’t the video, it’s what video lets you do as a leader — engage your team.

In and of themselves, any of these approaches would add value to how teams perform. In combination, they can produce both discretionary effort through more effective engagement, but also measurably superior results.

One of Cisco’s customers doesn’t call their virtual meetings “video meetings”; they call them “flawless meetings”. It’s what we get done virtually that matters most. While Cisco has achieved considerable real estate savings with teleworking, perhaps the most important measure is the performance of the people themselves who are working virtually. The numbers are pretty clear: As a percentage of the company’s population, teleworkers receive a higher share of the top grades in Cisco’s performance management system.

When process-culture-technology are managed like an integrated, coordinated system driving a deliberate change management strategy, it’s possible for leaders to get more done while creating passion and discretionary effort — no matter where people work. If you are considering a virtual worker program, do you have a change management strategy? Do you know what cultural norms need to evolve or adapt? Do you have rigor to your virtual team processes? How you answer these questions will predict success or failure as much as any technology that enables the virtual work.



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  1. Lol John, I disagree but its amazing none the less

  2. Thank you for sharing the two blogs. Here are my thoughts. Regarding the need for clarity, I can see where unfounded assumptions are likely a key contributor to an apparent lack of Purposeful Engagement in employees. One of my mentors taught me to avoid thinking that it was okay to use the expression "it goes without saying" -- because assumed comprehension can be dangerous, until verified. Your point about the “story behind the decision” is a familiar concept to me. In marketing we call that the "backstory" -- it's an abbreviated roadmap of how you arrived at a decision. Regarding the need for curiosity, since this is a human trait that's not active to the same degree in all people, I wonder how you enhance it culturally. Is there a proven method to create (or perhaps simulate) an environment where those who want to explore and experiment are not only encouraged, but also rewarded for their efforts? My point: I've yet to see an HR performance appraisal that places a value on assessing inherent and active curiosity in an individual. Moreover, if behavioral change is part of a corporate culture enhancement objective, then should acknowledgement and rewards be part of the execution? Will rewarding the practice of active curiosity send a substantive message to other employees -- that we value this quality in a person? Can you thereby nurture it as an aspiration for others, by example?

  3. Mr. Ricci, regarding your comments about culture, I'm wondering if you've read any of the research that I linked to in my related commentary back in January 2012? What do you believe are the most effective strategies to solve the "Purposeful Engagement" shortfall challenges of today?

    • Great insight Ron. Two things: working from home is productivity gain and technology is most powerful when combined with change management. Thanks for the thoughts

      • Jeff - what insights can you share about how you've managed change management on your teams and made virtual work an advantage and/or productivity strategy?

    • David - thanks for the comment. Your blog laid out a great case for the value (or lack there of) of purposeful employee engagement. Here's two blogs I've written on what I've learned about purposeful engagement. One is called, "Employee Engagement Needs a Little Clarity" ( and another is called, "How Curious is Your Organization?" ( Let me know what you think!