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A virtual office or a virtual island?

I think it’s pretty clear these days that employees can be effective both in and out of the office. Consider all of the tools available to enable a virtual office: hosted VOIP telephone solutions for Follow Me telephony, Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 for document sharing and email access, Dropbox for file sharing, and GoToMeeting for online meetings. Really, is there anything that you can’t sync with while on the road?

Well, yes.

You can’t TRULY sync with your fellow employees at the office. At least not without working really hard at it.

In my years as an independent consultant and as CEO of Puryear IT I’ve been able to see into two different worlds. In one world, employees are based out of an office. These employees see each other every day and tend to do what you’d expect: share jokes, have face-to-face meetings (including huddles), and, critically, rope one another into problem resolution. (And, of course, they also waste time with idle chat.)

In the other world, I see companies (customers, vendors, and competitors) that run completely as virtual offices. Their employees rarely have face-to-face meetings with other employees or even managers. Instead, almost all communication was via email and cell phones. The de facto office was a Starbucks or CC’s. (And, of course, they also waste time with idle chat-but instead of doing it in person, they do it via IM.)

The gap between these two groups of employees is the face-to-face collaboration that builds teamwork and unity. My experience with employees that work for a company that is almost or entirely virtual is that those employees have far less buy-in to company culture. They also view themselves, more often than not, as free agents.

And that’s not the employee’s fault. It’s management’s.

Virtual offices can reduce overhead and extend the geographically reach of a company. Certainly. But the cost is a virtual alienation that comes with it. So it’s management’s job to overcome that by constantly reinforcing company culture, encouraging or even requiring collaboration, and fostering a sense of shared purpose and responsibility-qualities that seem to naturally develop when people work next to one another.

Look, we love online collaboration. We support it. We sell it. But we also remind our customers that being “virtual” isn’t a panacea. It’s useful and, for some companies, critical, but it requires a careful plan to ensure employees are part of a team-and not just a free agent that views your business as the paycheck du jour.

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