Friday, June 15, 2012

Virtual Communication in the Workplace

A major driver in business has always been the ability to communicate effectively. This is not a profound statement, it is merely a fact.  Few people in the workplace remember IBM’s Selectric with changeable font balls for a choice of script or courier; or another business innovation referred to by some as the “mojowire”, and by others as the fax machine – all amazing improvements to our ability to communicate in the workplace.  Today we are in a virtual communication world approaching Star Trek and very soon, “Beam me up Scottie”, may be a reality.

Considering the challenges of businesses functioning on a global scale, the one factor that has not changed is the need to communicate effectively.  Technical innovations have given us virtual tools to add to our arsenal and absolutely provide major benefits.   The benefits fall into several major categories, including transportation cost saving, knowledge sharing efficiency, improved customer service, and improved employee utilization.

In the first category, transportation – reducing the need to travel to every client meeting or to the office generates costs savings in fuel, time and office overhead, along with a positive green  impact of reducing the carbon footprint. Taking advantage of email, and conference calling are routine and are further enhanced with the use of satellite conferencing, Webinars, or online video calling.  For small group video meetings Skype, Oovoo or Yugma offer free to very low cost options to get everyone in on collaborating to hammer out details at one time.  For communicating educational or promotional roll-out information, a Webinar or web conference may be more appropriate.  Using any number of available options such as Openmeetings, GotoWebinar, Adobe Connect, or Microsoft Office Live, a company can deliver the same message to all members of the company at any location in real time.  That being said, based upon my own experience of holding such a meeting with members in Michigan - USA, South Korea, Australia and Germany; one has to understand that some members could be in their pajamas unless a dress code of business attire is specified!

The second category of benefit is knowledge sharing efficiency.  As a business writer, tutor and educator, I find a team of one is limited, while the greatest kernels of wisdom have come from varying perspectives that can only be present when collaborating with others.  Again, Webinars or Skype and Oovoo like programs are wonderful and easy to use methods for brainstorming and having a face to put with a voice while creating or reviewing material.

In the third category, improved customer service, the positive impact of virtual communication cannot be denied.  Smartly designed voice prompted response systems and live response representatives available on at 24-hour basis prove to be great for the bottom line – some studies claim a 36% impact!  Of course any measure of improvement in keeping customers satisfied with the product, or the service provided is the ultimate goal because happy customers drive a healthy bottom line, and a healthy bottom line drives a healthy company.  Using email, text messaging, phone calls or online response systems are all easy to use and manage methods.

The final major category of benefit for this discussion about using virtual communication in the workplace is improved employee utilization.  The workplace of today cannot thrive without satisfied stakeholders.  Clients have to be satisfied and valued, and equally as important, the workplace cannot survive without motivated, respected, valued and inspired employees.  The same virtual conventions that have brought the world to the doors of the local workplace have brought the local workplace to the front doors of its employee’s homes.  This is another one of the potential cost saving benefits for the employer.  Recognizing that for the first time in history there are five different generations of employees in the workplace.  The employee base potentially represents the greatest diversity in languages spoken, geography encompassed and variations of culture.  Considering this awe inspiring diversity of the workplace, if employers wish to gain the greatest benefit from employees it would be wise to consider that a one size fits all approach may not be best.  For example a Gen-X or millennial generation employee may have little use for elder care benefits, however a baby-boomer or boomer2, may need those benefits to address family care issues.   Millennial generation and Gen-Xer’s may need childcare and educational flexibility.  Sacrificing the value that each generation brings to the workplace is made moot with the successful implementation of virtual communication.  Staying connected to the workplace is made seamless with the use of email, teleconferencing, video calling, Dropbox, SharePoint and other real time collaborative tools.  I also believe blogging and using facebook, tumblr, and a host of other social networking tools can benefit the workplace when used according to guidelines that employees have a hand in creating.

Individuals have to embrace leveraging the technology which is evolving at a mind boggling speed.  Communication, whether virtual, or in your face, is only as good as the people engaged in communicating.  The human element is the key to all successful virtual communication.  It is important to understand that generational position has little to do with the ability to leverage any virtual communication tools.  True enough, the millennials probably have the edge on playing Guitar Hero or Halo, but there is no conclusive evidence that younger employees are any better than more senior co-workers at mastering virtual technology most used in the workplace.  What is true is that all generations of employees benefit most from supervision that can keep them engaged, whether working virtually or in a physical office location.  Supervision and management have to keep moral up so that when employees are not in sight, they are still in mind.  Virtual communication also makes it easier to blur the line between work and personal life.  It is up to management to work with employees to develop policies that foster career and work life balance.

Twitter speak, and the language of text messaging will never replace the long respected and admired elements of language resulting in a well turned sentence.  However, it is possible from time to time, we may need a reminder not to “facebook, Skype or ‘txt’ our bff” during a meeting, or not to email a co-worker sitting in the office next door, or just over the cubicle wall.

In looking at the methods, and the impact of virtual communication in the workplace – the benefits outweigh the negative side effects.  Technology will continue to evolve, and I believe it remains important to remember that differences in language, time zones, local customs, and culture are all challenges to virtual communication in the workplace.

 A final thought, when Alexander Graham Bell used his original modern technological creation for the first time, he was summoning the assistance of another human as he said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.”  -- In my opinion, even with the phenomenal benefits of virtual communication in the workplace, at some point we will all need to summon our own Mr. Watson.