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The Individual Virtual Worker

Technology has changed the very structure of who, how, where and what you do. In the virtual workplace you have minimal physical contact with other human beings and rely heavily on verbal communication. As a virtual worker you may interact with colleagues either synchronously in real time, or asynchronously in delayed time. You however, are likely to be tethered to and dependent on a screen or a mobile device. Technology has freed you in some ways and enslaved you in others.

Today many people work away from the main office or organization because they can stay connected in so many ways, whether they want to or not. We are all part of this huge shift. There are an ever-growing array of technologies, tools and options. These technologies have invaded our lives very quickly and not even researchers have had a real chance to study the long-term implications or influences. According to an NBC report, by the end of 2010 there were about 5 billion cell phone subscriptions worldwide. (10) Because of the allure of always being connected, many people cannot and do not disconnect. They are afraid they might miss something.

For the virtual worker, the isolation of working from home is a real issue. If you are working from home for the first time you may experience a type of culture shock. You may feel apprehensive and not contact colleagues for help, because you were used to walking over to the person’s desk. You may not intuitively know what to do after drinking your morning coffee. The feeling of isolation can be minimized by developing specific strategies, but it does not happen over night. All of a sudden you may realize how many house chores you have pushed to the side and may even get the urge to do them when you should be working. You may become intensely aware of everyone else’s schedule—-the kids, the dog, the mailman—-except your own. You may even experience loss of your sense of identity, especially when there is no need to wear a suit and there is no physical pat on the back.

You might be in trouble when you allow the technology to take over your work life and your personal life. You can become hooked, fixated or addicted to being “connected” at all times. If managed effectively however, the use of digitally mediated communications can free you to be more efficient and enhance the quality of your life. Dangers abound and embedded in the challenges of digital communications is the opportunity for miscommunication. The social conditions of the virtual world do not provide the opportunity to observe and monitor the other person’s physical behavior. This lack of non-verbal cues forces you to infer the tone of written communication, or the tone of the other person’s voice. The message is inevitably interpreted based on the receiver’s own perceptions, and for this reason, messages can easily be misconstrued.

The frequency and timeliness of communication becomes more important in the virtual office. This is because what is expected of you has also changed. Another potential pitfall is inappropriate or lack of feedback. Providing open and honest feedback in a virtual environment is paramount. You must learn to listen carefully to the other person, provide clear feedback, and also ask questions to avoid misreading or misinterpreting messages. You are expected to provide a speedy response to emails and phone calls, because everyone knows you are connected through the technology. This too adds to potential stress. You are feeling enslaved because you’re always on. You are stuck and you do not know how to get unstuck.

It is much easier to focus on work at the office because it is a defined place with a defined “look.” There are cubicles, desks, colleagues, and the supervisor’s office…or in the case of they brick and mortar school, there are fellow students, the teacher and the white board. In cyberspace however, none of these traditional visual clues are available to you. The new virtual office is comprised of a combination of text, audio and very different visuals than the traditional workplace or classroom.

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