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Brandman University study finds virtual work force benefits underrated

The research highlights the collaboration tools that would bring companies a greater competitive advantage.

by caitlin adamsPublished: May 24, 2011 07:30 AM

Many companies hold conflicting opinions on the merits of virtual work environments, according to a new study commissioned by Irvine-based Brandman University and conducted by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Consulting.

Virtual teams, defined as a group of people working together from diverse locations on a specific project, have unquestionably been on the rise for a number of years. However, according to the study, companies may simply be employing collaboration tools for their most immediate and convenient benefits and underestimating the full competitive advantage that a distributed work force and virtual teaming presents.

The study, titled “Virtual Work Environments in a Post-Recession Era,” surveyed senior company leaders and hiring managers in America’s Fortune 500, as well as large businesses with 5,000 employees or more that are actively or gradually hiring new staff. The data showed the strong adoption of virtual teams, with 40 percent of respondents saying that 40 percent or more of their company’s staff currently work in such teams, and 56 percent expecting that virtual teaming will increase in the next one to three years.

However, relatively few respondents (30 percent) identified virtual teaming as an important strategy that enables growth opportunities in new markets; or provides employee flexibility and job satisfaction (35 percent); or promotes environmentally friendly business practices (15 percent). The primary benefits behind virtual tools, cited in the survey, include reduction in travel and real estate expenses (61 percent), and the ability to recruit high-quality talent regardless of geography (59 percent).

Charles Bullock, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Brandman University, said that the research suggests that company leaders understand that a global economy demands strategies like virtual teaming, “but we believe they may be short-sighted on its benefits.”

"Right now, companies primarily view virtual teaming as a way to cut travel and real estate costs, but innovative companies can leverage virtual teaming as a competitive advantage when the organizational culture promotes trust and communication, and incorporates an array of interactive technologies to foster better collaboration," Bullock said.

While the popularity of virtual collaboration may be on the rise, continued concern about establishing accountability with distributed team members fuels speculation about the strategy’s merits; more than half (57 percent) of the survey participants said earning trust was a challenge for managers of virtual teams; group leaders’ other key concerns also included effective communication with remote employees (49 percent), successfully managing projects and deadlines (43 percent), and creating consensus during the decision-making process (43 percent).

In addition, survey participants indicated in interviews that “missing intangibles” such as body language cues, the absence of a “water cooler” and more informal communications and interactions impact trust. Managers are left to find alternate methods to establish rapport with off-site team members through social media or employee portals.

From an employee’s perspective, an understanding or proficiency in collaboration technologies are a must for employment consideration, according to 70 percent of respondents; however, only 7 to 43 percent of those surveyed said their companies planned to invest in specific collaboration tools. Among those that did plan to make such investments, 40 percent said they were planning to purchase
Web- and video-conferencing equipment, and less than 20 percent will spend on tools such as instant messaging, blogs, wikis or social networks.

"The work force of the future must adapt to what was previously a subtle move toward a borderless office and is now accelerating with a post-recession economy and steady adoption of collaborative business technologies," Bullock said. "Traditional leadership and management skills are the price of admission to being competitive in business today. Leaders also need a range of technical and collaborative skills to get ahead in an increasingly virtual business world."

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