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The New Reality of Working Virtually


by Stephany Schings Below, Communications Manager

LEC Keynote Discusses Opportunities and Challenges of the Virtual Workforce
While brick and mortar offices won’t be disappearing anytime soon, organizations can no longer ignore the challenges and opportunities of the burgeoning virtual workforce, says Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD, opening keynote speaker at this year’s Leading Edge Consortium (LEC).
 “The Virtual Workforce: Designing, Leading, and Optimizing,” SIOP’s 7th annual LEC, will bring together thought leaders from academia and practice in a day-and-a-half event focusing on the exciting topic of the virtual workforce. Speakers will discuss virtual work and collaboration, social media, and technology for recruitment, selection, performance, and management, among other topics. (For more information on the LEC format and speakers, read the most recent story here!)
Registration is now open for this event, which will take place October 14-15, 2011 at the Hilton Seelbach in Louisville, Kentucky.

Register for “The Virtual Workforce” today!

This year’s consortium will explore various issues as well as the newest practice and research on the topic of the virtual workforce, with General Chair Kurt Kraiger, Practice Chair Andrea Goldberg, Science Chair Lori Foster Thompson, and Research Chair Allen Kraut.In addition to Hunt, SIOP Fellow Wayne Cascio will serve as closing keynote speaker.
Hunt is the principal of Renaissance Strategic Solutions (RSS), a consultancy specializing in social media, communication, and human capital management that helps organizations increase their effectiveness through the design and implementation of innovative and leading-edge strategies and programs. She is also the founder of Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs), a professional community whose mission is to provide information and guidance about the organizational implications of social media.
Hunt will draw on these experiences to discuss the virtual workforce during her keynote address.
“We are now well into what I consider the second phase of the Digital Era,” she explained. “With the first phase, we had the Internet and email and other new ways of communicating digitally. Now with the second phase we have social media—blogs, wikis, podcasts, status updates, and other Web 2.0 technologies that further change how people communicate and collaborate. And we now also have mobile devices, tablets, and smart phones, which have really exploded in the last year.”
The benefit of these technologies, Hunt said, is that they enable people to work anywhere. She gave an example of a surgeon located in Los Angeles assisting another surgeon doing a delicate operation in Canada.
“You would think a field like medicine can’t have a virtual workforce,” she added. “But the surgeon in L.A. could get on a video conference to assist the surgeon in Canada, or the surgeon could perform the surgery remotely. So the virtual workforce is applicable to most fields.”
Although these new technologies have the potential to change the workplace, Hunt explained, organizations need to change their perspectives about work in order to utilize them.
“We have this notion of work that comes from the Industrial Age—kind of a factory model of set working hours in a single physical location,” Hunt explained. “But the factory model is not the most natural way for humans to work. When you reflect on how we’ve worked from a broader historical perspective, you realize we have been much more fluid about what we do and when and how we do it. New technologies enable us to return to that kind of approach.”
These technologies create opportunities such as a greater ability to collaborate and identify experts anywhere, Hunt explained. 
“For example, 5 years ago if you worked in the Chicago office of an organization and you had a question or an issue, you were pretty much restricted to the people in Chicago office if you weren’t already aware of a resource or expert in another location,” Hunt explained. “Now if you also have offices in Topeka, Kansas, you can easily seek out experts in Topeka, too. Leveraging tools like blogs and wikis and user-generated profiles, you can quickly identify people who can help no matter where they work, and you can reach out to them digitally, via phone, or through video conferencing. We can communicate and collaborate with each other in the cloud in ways we couldn’t before.”
Virtual tools can also make things more efficient and effective, Hunt added.
“E-mail is great, but it’s very linear and clunky,” she explained. “Now people can create a shared digital space where they can collaborate. It’s kind of like the notion of the agora from the Greeks. We can share documents, we can have a shared calendar, we can have ongoing chats that stay there so if we are collaborating we don’t lose our train of thought, and it’s not spread out among all of us.”
However, that fluidity can create a lot of challenges in terms of defining best practices and overcoming difficulties of not seeing colleagues face- to- face, she added.
“There are certainly basic challenges to working virtually,” Hunt explained. “For example, if you only know someone digitally, there is not the same level of richness in the relationship as if you had met them in person or over the phone, and you are more vulnerable to miscommunication and misunderstanding.”
Another difficulty is that when you are part of the virtual workforce, you are always “on,” Hunt added.
“So it becomes much more of a challenge to figure out how to create boundaries in terms of when and where you are working,” she explained. “I think that’s manageable, of course, but it’s a new set of challenges.”
It can also be a challenge for employers adapting to leading a virtual workforce as well as employees adapting to becoming a part of one.
“I think some leaders, especially if they come from a traditional perspective, find it difficult to lead people they don’t see,” she said. “Also, personal habits and discipline are very important in employees. Self-motivation is very important. Some people may not be as disciplined or intrinsically motivated, and working virtually can make it difficult for them to stay focused. Personality characteristics also come into play. There can be resistance to change. Some people may not be as comfortable moving in this space.”

Many of the presentations at this year’s LEC will discuss these specific
challenges and opportunities. For a full list of speakers, click
Hunt said she follows a lot of trends in the virtual workforce and social media fields as she works to help educate people about what’s going on in this second phase of the Digital Era and what it means so they can figure out the best way to move ahead. Many organizations, she explained, are not as savvy in the virtual work sector as you might think.
“Kraft and JP Morgan Chase are only now moving forward in a substantial way using digital technologies internally in a disciplined and rigorous way,” Hunt explained. “When someone says Kraft, you think ‘they’re all over social media,’ but then you hear their story and you realize how complex the process has been for them to bring the technologies inside. Success in using new technologies for marketing doesn’t quickly or easily translate into using them inside the organization, with their workforce.”
She said many organizations are slow to adopt new technologies, especially social media and other virtual work tools.
“I’ve been at this in a concentrated way for the last couple of years and it has been a very slow process,” she explained. “People are starting. I see progress all the time, but it is extremely slow, and many leaders are only just starting to realize they need to move forward. A lot of rookies think that everyone is much further along than they are, but the truth is most people aren’t. I still think 80%-90% of individuals and organizations have not done much if anything to exploit digital technologies to support virtual work.”
Hunt said she believes this is because there are a lot of other strategic priorities in organizations right now because of the recession, and they haven’t really had to get educated about this topic.
“But they will,” she said. “Technology will continue to morph and get more sophisticated and create more challenges. I don’t see an end in sight, so organizations really have to educate themselves. Progress is slow, but it’s steady.”
Hunt said she thinks SIOP is moving forward faster than other groups for delving into this topic and attempting to educate in the field of the virtual workforce. She was impressed by the number and popularity of sessions related to digital technology at the 2011 annual conference, and she commends the LEC for providing a forum for additional exploration and discussion. She’s looking forward to sharing her perspective and learning from others as well.
Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD, is the principal of Renaissance Strategic Solutions (RSS), a consultancy that helps organizations increase their effectiveness through the design and implementation of innovative and leading-edge strategies and programs. Specializing in social media, communication, and human capital management, RSS works with organizations of all sizes in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, in a wide range of industries. RSS is the founder and sponsor of the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community. Developing this community and meeting the needs of practitioners with respect to the strategic implications of social media is currently RSS's primary focus. In addition to providing training on what social media is and how to use it, RSS provides expertise to clients interested in developing social media strategies and creating and implementing related programs. RSS also helps organizations create and implement social media policies and provides training to ensure both managers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities.
Courtney’s background in business development, communications, human capital management, information technology, and academia, combined with her business acumen, enables her to provide a unique holistic perspective and strategic leadership to organizations. She is a sought-after speaker who regularly shares her expertise through presentations and workshops. She also provides insights and thought leadership through her blogs (Renaissance Reflections and the SMinOrgs S.M.A.R.T. Blog), as well as white papers, published articles, and book chapters. She is currently developing a social media primer and is currently writing a Digital Era guide for leaders.