Article: Space, Time and the Workplace: The story of virtual collaboration

Strategic HR

Space, Time and the Workplace: The story of virtual collaboration

A relentless blaze of virtual collaboration and networking technologies is re-defining our interactions and even blurring traditional boundaries of workplace and work time. How can businesses harness this power for cost efficiency, employee productivity and employer branding?
 

The Internet's enormous power of disruptive innovation is changing the face of our workplace

 

Given the wide array of connections of each user, professional networking sites have the potential for recruiters and headhunters to establish contact with suitable candidates

 

A relentless blaze of virtual collaboration and networking technologies is re-defining our interaction with peers, colleagues and customers. Conferencing tools and collaborative virtual environments blur the traditional boundaries of workplace and work time.

How can businesses harness this power for cost efficiency, employee productivity and employer branding?

Bangalore, Monday 4:30am: Yash wakes up at this ‘unearthly’ hour and turns on his laptop. As he invites his Sydney-based client using GoToMeeting, he wonders if this is really worth all his efforts and whether this client would renew their customer support outsourcing contract. The next hour (expectedly) turns out to be one big nightmare as Ben, the VP Customer Support and his side-kick continue where they left off 5 days earlier – pricing issues. As spreadsheets, documents and presentations fly from both ends, it dawns on Yash that Ganesh’s (his boss) communication with Ben on Friday was grossly inadequate. He schedules another meeting for 10am IST and closes his laptop.
The conferencing room on the office 3rd floor is one impressive facility. With four people face-to-face from either side thrashing out delivery, quality and pricing issues and the boss not willing to yield, Yash can feel the deal slipping. After the meeting, Ganesh, with his usual “called-their-bluff” rah-rah, rushes out for another ‘important’ meeting.
Midday and a frustrated Yash tweets “Me in training for upper management. Come in, drink coffee, shoot the sh*t, and disappear for the rest of the day!” And then comes the call…the Marketing Director wants to meet Yash regarding the Sydney client. “No way”, thinks Yash, “this could only mean bad news. Ganesh has left me holding the hot potato and I am in for a serious dressing down”.

He tries calling Ganesh and gets a message back “In a meeting at other end of town…may not be able to make it back today with all the traffic jams”. As he takes the elevator ride from the trenches to the 7th floor, Yash can’t but help turning on the “Interested in matching jobs” feature on his LinkedIn profile.

In October 2008, when Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Vice-Chairman Emeritus of the Academy of Technology, IBM, gave the suggestion to host a Virtual World Conference in a secure Second Life environment, little did he know that the event would be a watershed of sorts. A 6,100-member team was created to train second life users for the 3-day Virtual World Conference that boasted of over 200 members as participants from across the globe. The Second Life Technology enabled IBM to save a substantial amount of $320,000 on traveling, venue, boarding and lodging, and other costs that would have been incurred had the conference been organized in the physical world. Such was the euphoria that IBM decided to hold its Annual General Meeting too in a virtual world.


4 Top Internet Trends of Organizations

• A new generation of conferencing software and equipment that cater to diverse needs and affordability have improved the level of communication between employees & with clients and have substantially reduced the need for commercial travel.
• Virtual environments like Second Life that allow for enhanced quality of group interaction in seminars, learning sessions, presentations and group interaction from the comfort of one’s desktop, while reducing costs for training and development initiatives.
• Professional networking sites that provide for dynamic profiles and enable businesses to get in front and interact with passive candidates, in the backdrop of a connected global network that ensures lesser ‘misrepresentation’ in CVs.
• Social networking sites, where users increasingly share their personal judgments, aspirations and feelings, developing into media for corporate and employer branding.

The Internet is changing our lives at a pace unprecedented in modern history. The way we communicate, absorb news, search for information, share our lives with family and friends has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. And ever so surely, the Internet’s enormous power of disruptive innovation is changing the face of our workplace and our workday in ways we could hardly have imagined a decade earlier.

Who shrunk my planet, honey?

Businesses, primarily technology companies in the US, have embraced collaboration technology in an endeavor to engage with their employees, channel partners and customers operating in different parts of the world. The instance of IBM hosting a Virtual World Conference is just one of the many examples where companies have adopted virtual environments to stay connected with employees and business associates.

Mass deployment of ‘Collaboration Technology’ – from conventional teleconferencing to video conferencing to information exchange and problem solving in virtual environment - will have a significant impact on the workplaces of the future. For starters, companies can significantly slash their commercial travel expense, traditionally borne as a ‘cost-of-doing-business’. The recession of 2008 has only alerted global companies to such possibilities and the extent of their cost-cutting power. Inder Sidhu, Senior Vice President Strategy & Planning at Cisco, elaborates on experience from within – “When the global recession hit us in 2008, we needed to reduce expenses quickly. By leveraging on our own collaboration technologies and advanced videoconferencing equipment, we reduced annual travel costs by $423 million, while simultaneously increasing employee productivity. Because our employees were not stuck in transit, interactions with customers increased significantly and customer satisfaction improved year-over-year.”

Even for a company of Cisco’s size, that figure represents over 6% of 2008-09 annual profit after taxes!
Apart from reducing costs, collaboration technology also facilitates higher engagement during training, better collaboration between distributed networks and enhanced opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. While such virtual tools are immensely popular in the US and in Europe, the trend is fast spreading to Asia, Middle East, and Africa as well. Indian companies are fast beginning to realize the benefits of using collaborative technology to maximize efficiency. Says Siddharth Banerjee, Founder & CEO, Indusgeeks Solutions, “I think one of the main reasons India has lagged behind western economies in adopting new technologies has been the lack of infrastructure and finance. As broadband becomes pervasive and hardware becomes more affordable, we’ll see these technologies go beyond the big companies to the SME and rural segments”. Indusgeeks provides virtual office solutions for training, meeting and collaboration for companies which have virtual or distributed workforce – an environment where people can easily meet and train online within a browser in an easy to use virtual environment using their digital ‘avatars’.

The list of visible, potential benefits from harnessing such collaboration technology reads like a virtual (pun intended) wish list – cost reduction, higher productivity with increased focus on core activities, tremendous opportunity for training & development initiatives, improved employee engagement and collaboration for problem solving. For a country like India, where scarce access to education and skills-training presents a major economic and social challenge, the unforeseen benefits could far outnumber the (thus far) known ones.

Talent hunting in virtual space

Talent management and recruitment is one domain where the Internet’s power to connect, aggregate, classify and transact has brought in major innovation over the last decade. Most large-scale hiring today is facilitated by recruitment portals that match candidates looking for jobs with prospective employers.

Looking ahead, the growing popularity of professional networking sites has the potential to take this transformation in recruitment to the next level. Professional networking sites enable professionals to make connections with their colleagues, ex-colleagues, business associates, channel partners, vendors etc on a virtual platform. Given the wide array of connections of each user, these sites have the potential for recruiters and headhunters to establish contact with suitable candidates.

Yogesh Bansal, Founder & CEO, ApnaCircle.com points out two main reasons for such a potential shift in hiring means. Firstly, professional networking sites enable people to recommend their connections on seeing a job opening, thereby acting as a point of reference for the recruiter about the quality and credentials of the prospective candidate. And second, such sites are the only place where recruiters have access to an up to date profile of the professional. Adds Bansal, “People often use networking sites for maintaining connections but it eventually becomes their business card and therefore, they normally invest time and effort in ensuring that their profile is completely up to date.”

Hari Krishnan, Country Manager, LinkedIn India explains the global outlook, “Today, hiring solutions is one of LinkedIn’s three primary business lines, along with user subscriptions and advertising, each representing approximately 1/3 of our total revenue. Hiring solutions globally is a 60 billion dollar market and professional websites will capture a significant share of this pie in the time to come. Professional networking sites have created a disruptive innovation, in a similar form that online classifieds did with print classifieds; we will see a similar movement. The two main reasons are that the best candidates are normally those that might not be looking for a job and secondly the networked platform provides the additional benefits of accuracy of information in the profile as the community itself acts to provide checks & balances to the information posted.”

The jury is still out on whether recruitment using professional networking sites would go on to become as large a phenomenon as the usage of traditional recruitment portals. Sanjiv Bhikchandani, CEO of InfoEdge (naukri.com) believes that the intent with which one registers on a professional site vis-à-vis a recruitment portal underlines the differences between the two and when the dust finally settles, networking sites would complement the use of recruitment portals. “Any person who registers on a job portal is surely looking for a job, whereas if a person registers on a professional networking site may have a different intention as he may or may not be looking for a job. Secondly, because of policies of privacy and anti-spam, the access to individual information on professional networking sites is limited and companies cannot access a mass audience in one go. The consequences of these differences are that the recruiter using professional networking sites has no control over who would or not be interested to hear about a job opening; productivity and control of the process is hence lower and expensive. In my opinion, job portals and networking sites will co-exist and the usage of it will be complementary. For mass hiring, job portals will keep providing the easy access to candidates actively looking for a job,” he adds.

In the middle of all the innovation, hype and competition, employers stand to benefit immensely as the costs of hiring fall dramatically and the accuracy of finding the correct ‘fit’ for each role improves with each generation of online search tools. And again, like in the case of collaborative technologies, employers and consumers in volume-heavy markets like India stand to benefit the most from such disruptive innovation.

The Virtual, the Ethical and the Legal

The information intensive Internet world brings with it hordes of legal and ethical issues regarding privacy, balance of power between employer and employee, authenticity of information, right to monitoring and surveillance. Foremost among these is the limits to which employees can express their judgment and opinion regarding employers on social forums.
In April, employees at Infosys, India’s second-largest IT services firm, took to blogs and networking sites like Facebook, Orkut and Twitter to showcase their displeasure on Infosys being awarded the Best Employer award by Business Today.

Infosys, that employs approximately 1,14,000 people in India and across the world, had to face the wrath of its employees when the company launched its program ‘iRace’ to evaluate the technology skills of its employees, which was not received in good taste by some employees. To prevent employees from posting on social networking sites, which are constantly under public scrutiny, the HR team at Infosys created an internal networking site on the company’s intranet and encouraged employees to post their opinion there. Although Infosys has received a negative backlash through this exercise as well, the company has claimed that the internal blogging site, named ‘Sparsh’ will remain open for further discussions regarding changes.

This recent instance has given rise to a very critical point regarding the legal aspect of such communication and how do new channels of communication change communication rights. India’s legislative and legal system has been notoriously slow in incorporating social changes brought about by the Internet. Michael Dias, an eminent lawyer and expert in this area clarifies, “Freedom of speech is a constitutional right regardless of the medium of communication used; the employee is free to express his/her opinion on professional, social or religious views. This freedom of speech is subject to limit of harming or impacting the organization. For example, if in one of these social or professional networking sites, the employee discloses where she works and who is her boss and she, for example, accuses him or her of illicit or fraudulent behavior then this communication will be subject to legal scrutiny and these can be taken as evidence against the employee in a court of law.

“The craze of social networking sites and the risks they could pose through indiscriminate posting by employees, have made a host of Indian companies sit up and introduce behavioral policies relating to usage of these sites. While companies like Microsoft, TCS, Max New York Life and Dr. Reddy’s Lab have already come up with employee behavioral policies for social networking, others are keeping a close watch on the issue.

“Typically, the policies lay down a code of conduct which employees, sometimes even ex-employees, have to adhere to when they post on sites. In the broader sense, they cannot criticize employers and colleagues, discuss office policies, leak business secrets or create fora which could be construed as having been created by the organization.”

Another raging issue, mostly in the US, is the increasing access an employer has to employees’ private and virtual lives - How far can employers go in looking into the online lives of their employees and more importantly, judge their employees based on information collected from means outside of the ‘workplace’? Cisco’s Sidhu provides an uncomplicated viewpoint to this delicate issue, “You can’t shield your virtual life from an employer or a service provider. Nor can you conceal your productivity, or lack thereof. But you can choose reputable and responsible companies with which to engage. The key takeaway is this: your employer will know more about you than ever before, and vice versa. The balance of power hasn’t shifted so much as it has evolved. In exchange for less privacy, you gain greater freedom. That’s the bargain of the new digital world. For those who can embrace this, there are truly wonderful possibilities ahead.”

Is your organization virtual-ready?

The beauty of the Internet lies in its unbiased access to just about everyone with a computer and a connection. Herein lies the opportunity for companies to differentiate themselves as brands and employers of choice – just as the Internet can prove to be a slaughterhouse for carefully nurtured corporate reputations, so can it be used as an effective medium for participation, feedback and for communication.

Sanjiv Bikhchandani points out to the growing role of virtual networking and collaboration in forcing companies to be more transparent to the external world – “What used to be classified as gossip before and reaching four people at a water cooler, can today reach 400 or 4000 very easily. Employees and employers need to accept this new paradigm. Especially employers should focus on participating, joining the wave and taking advantage by using these channels instead of fighting against them.”

Organizations that can harness the power of this virtual world - of social networks to amplify positive opinion, of professional networks to seek out and communicate clearly with prospective employees, of virtual environments to create knowledge networks and customer service groups – stand to build positive association in the minds of their customers, current and prospective employees. And importantly, like most things arising out of the Internet, such branding can be achieved at a fraction of the cost it would take using traditional media.

The underlying theme here is one of transparency, flexibility and openness – an ability on the part of companies to embrace new developments in virtual space and harness these developments to build stronger bonds with employees and customers. As numerous examples from the liberal world have demonstrated, fighting against the gush of information emanating from the Internet is pointless. Join in…Its free!
 

Topics: Strategic HR, C-Suite

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