The Wild West of Virtual Offices: Have Keyboards Become Six-Shooters?

When Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, made her inaugural splash by announcing that working from home was no longer an option for Yahoo employees, a collective gasp was heard around the telecommuting world. Why, hadn't we learned that working parents, long-commuting consultants, and tech-savvy employees with good work ethics did better when they didn't have to contend with "butts in chairs"? Turns out, yes... and no.

2013-05-31-TheVirtualOffice.jpgForbes writer, Margie Warrell, offers a few relevant points in her piece, "Back into the Office! 3 Reasons Marissa Mayer Has Made A Smart Move," contending that, despite well-documented conveniences, potential production spikes, and the presumed morale-boost of flexible office schedules, there are distinct advantages to getting your workers working under one roof:

  1. #1 Personal connections optimize collaboration
  2. #2 Water cooler conversations foster synergies that emails don't
  3. #3 Distance can damage trust and be a cop-out for crucial conversations

She extrapolates on each point and the article's well worth the read. But one thing she left off her list, or perhaps it's a harmonic of her #3 (which deals with "virtual veracity"), is something I've found to be an issue in my own experiences with telecommuting: the fine art and craft of virtual communication. It takes real skill and tremendous acuity (and diplomacy) to communicate day after day via only the Internet or text on a tiny phone screen. And in the many years I've worked with various companies and clients on a telecommuting basis, I'm here to tell you: not everyone has that skill... and the subsequent fallout, in terms of morale, production and expediency, can be fierce.

Certainly the value of video-chatting is understood: gathering the disparate team members around their individual desks and tables for collective face time can go a long way toward building relationships and strengthening communal goals and purposes. Additionally, vocal inflections, facial expressions -- the lift of an eyebrow, cock of the head, twinkle of the eye -- can all be useful in buffering criticism, clarifying questions and concerns, or transmitting arcane or particularly challenging instructions. Many virtual offices make it mandatory to communicate visually at least once a month.

But without that tangible connection to a human face and voice, the words typed on a screen can too often send staff down the wrong road, or leave employees -- and clients -- confused, unclear, sometimes misguided, and, far too often, hurt and put-off.

Sarcasm, cutting humor, snarkiness (with its always flexible and all too precarious balance of humor and passive aggressiveness) are particularly difficult to transmit virtually. As we all know, the simplest inflection can change the spin of a sentence but, oh, how difficult that can be when emoticons and text codes are all you've got! Which leaves those who traffic in sarcasm or flip humor to either sort out the most effective way to type their eye-rolls or retorts without coming off like passive aggressives, or proceed with the potential of leaving employees, clients, or co-workers unintentionally insulted, unnecessarily hurt, or just completely unclear as to the point and purpose of a snarky comment.

A few examples:

Virtual office 1: Clients never came by and were rarely met in person; all transactions were done online. This usually involved the transmission of graphic design ideas, follow-up sketches, comments, tweaks, images, photographs, etc., all done virtually. A particular client had an associate with whom they were working -- but had not had prior contact with the staff -- send an email to the office regarding a matter related to the project. Given that this associate was unknown to the staff and hadn't introduced himself properly, a feisty office manager responded to the email as if it were spam, all snark and sass, ultimately creating a fracas that almost lost the company and the office manager their jobs.

Virtual office 2: None of those working together had ever physically met. All transactions, communications, delivery of work (related to writing and editing), response to work, etc., were done online -- most frequently, in chat groups and social media, with the occasional email or private message thrown in as necessary. Consultants hadn't even exchanged phone numbers so this was a template of true telecommuting. There were a few, in both management and staff, who were sarcasm swordsmen and when they'd respond to a question, even ask a question sometimes, the missing inflection, the less-than-successful transmission of humor, or the lack of an emoticon's softening buffer (can't those smiley little buggers take the edge off?) occasionally sparked confusion or hurt when intent was miscalculated. Without a face, without a voice, sometimes with confusion involved, a lot of unnecessary emotions were incited.

Virtual office #3: And, of course, with email there's always that percolating, terrifying, always-to-be-avoided danger of the misdirected "forward" or "reply to all" snafus that end up with the very-much-NOT-to-be-replied-to person getting in on the email chain, often one focused on him or her. This particular case involved a recording/editing studio where the producers and clients rarely interacted physically, with most work submitted and delivered online. In one case an email chat floating between members of the virtual staff -- one that included some less than flattering repartee about a client as well as one of the editors -- mistakenly got forwarded to both. The "virtual" tap-dance required of the offending staff members to save the client and blunt the wrath of their co-worker was excruciating. They pulled it off, but the scars probably still haven't healed.

Certainly millions of successful online communications are sent and received every minute of every day, but the ubiquity of virtual offices clearly raises the stakes -- and the potential -- of jobs and business relationships being lost or damaged when those communications aren't so successful. While Yahoo's Mayer may be onto something (her company did just move into first place as the "hottest Internet company of the year"), I'm certainly not one to eschew the business model: without the possibility of working virtually, I wouldn't be able to make a living... I'm sure that's true for many others as well. But I do recognize the pitfalls.

It's a dangerous world out there when a keyboard can be akin to a six-shooter, but in the wild, wild west of "cloud" offices and globally connected teams, it behooves all of us to know that weapon well, to sharpen our skills, and be sure we're aiming at the right target. Sometimes shooting the messenger -- particularly if it's the wrong one -- ends up being bloodier than we intended.


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