Virtual work environments shine a light on the competing values of yesterday and today. Many organizations are reluctant to change. They are content with power networks and visibility that can demand recognition and reward. Traditional notions of executive power and hierarchy are part of Western culture. Most of what is written and researched about virtual teams is based on antiquated team theory from the last century. This is revisited and updated in a flawed attempt to reflect the virtual environment.
It is a challenge for human beings to integrate the new without reference to the context of the old. The virtual environment with all its side shows, big data, constant connectivity, global reach and boundless everything creates a very different challenge for leadership. Virtual teams are flatter and they cut across silos and infrastructures. For the last thirty years, organizations have looked to teams to increase performance. Virtual teams are more flexible, creative and fluent. They get a great deal of work done. Technology enables the transition to a virtual work environment, and virtual teams are playing a much larger role in the economics of business.
Having a virtual workforce, however, also creates many business benefits for the organization that cannot be ignored. The virtual worker gets freedom and flexibility not only over where they live but how and the organization gets to hire valuable talent wherever that talent resides. The ability to hire regardless of location, an expanded talent pool, lower real estate costs, a reduction in business and travel expenses and happier and more productive workers are only a few of the benefits. Workers have a more flexible lifestyle and spend more time with their families. It saves everybody money and provides opportunities for people who may otherwise not be able to be a part of the workforce. The virtual workplace creates value to the environment as well. It cuts down on gasoline consumption and decreases smog and pollution. But the true value comes from what the virtual worker can contribute both in terms of knowledge and performance.
When power and performance are not part of the same structure this can create problems within the organization. A significant amount of research has been conducted in the last decade, and most of it suggests that organizations are reluctant to give up the hierarchy. Virtual teams are good at circumventing structure to facilitate speed and availability. Organizational structure can vanish while accomplishing project objectives and goals but the hierarchy remains. The hierarchy operates outside of the world of the virtual environment. In many cases it is still alive and well in the C Suite at corporate headquarters.
Very little research exists on what happens to power when the organization is horizontal. What has happened to this point is that organizations have relied on the past. We have tried to apply theories of management and leadership that are centuries old to the virtual environment (Hornett, 2004). Organizations do not want to give up the power structure. This makes it very difficult to manage the invisible. There is a lot more invisible in the lack of support for virtual workers than the fact they are just working off site.