Is the virtual workplace the workplace of the future?
In this guide, we’ll answer that question and many more.
Among other things, we’ll learn…
- Why the virtual workplace has become such a big trend in recent years
- What “virtual workplace” actually means
- How the virtual workplace differs from related concepts, such as the digital workplace and remote working
- Why every business should begin building their own virtual workplace
- How to build a great virtual workplace
…among many other things.
To start, let’s answer the most fundamental question of all, namely:
What Is a Virtual Workplace?
A virtual workplace is not one, but several interconnected remote work stations.
The workplace itself is called “virtual” because it contains all the elements of a physical workplace:
- Work stations
- Work processes and workflows
In fact, virtual workplaces operate almost identically to a physical workplace, except that all communication, collaboration, and interactions take place in cyberspace.
It is also possible to see how today’s workplaces are becoming more and more virtual. Since so much of today’s day-to-day work actually occurs in the digital space, we can see how the work world is gradually becoming more and more virtual.
We could even postulate a scale, or a spectrum, of workplace virtualization, which is exactly what others have done with concepts such as digital maturity and digital transformation.
A gap analysis, along with a scale such as this, can prove useful when defining “how virtual we are” and “how virtual we want to be.” Later, we will look at this in more depth.
Why Virtual Workplaces Are More Relevant Than Ever
One reason to create a virtualization roadmap is that setting benchmarks help an organization understand where it stands in relation to competitors in the industry.
But even more importantly, virtualization…
- Improves employee performance
- Increases organizational effectiveness
- Boosts employee and organizational agility
- Decreases costs related to commuting and office space
- Increases employee engagement and satisfaction
- Enhances an organization’s competitive positioning
Of course, these advantages come in direct proportion to how effectively an organization can virtualize its operations and its work processes.
Key Concepts Related to Virtual Work and Virtual Workplaces
Next, let’s look at a few important ideas directly related to virtual work and the virtual workplace:
- Virtual teams. Virtual teams are business teams that aren’t working in the same physical place. That is, they each have their own workstation which is geographically independent from the other workstations. Teams use telecommuting software, communication applications, and other tools to ensure that they are communicating and operating effectively.
- Remote working. Remote working is the practice of working separately from a company’s office. Remote workers can work from any location that supports the internet, as long as they have the necessary office equipment. Virtual teams are composed of remote workers.
- Digital transformation. Digital transformation is a category of organizational change that focuses on digitalizing the business as a whole. This can involve virtual workplace optimization, digital adoption, and many other technology-driven changes. Virtualization is one important aspect of digital transformation, which has become more well-known in recent years.
- Digital adoption. Digital adoption refers to when an organization adopts and uses new technology to its fullest extent and for its intended purpose. This depends on employees’ overall proficiency and skills, as well as how fully they utilize their tools. To maximize employee performance and software ROI, businesses should adopt the highest-performing digital training tools, such as digital adoption solutions.
- Digital maturity. Digital maturity represents an organization’s digital capabilities. This includes not only the software that it uses, but how effectively and fully that software is used, employee proficiency levels, and other factors that all impact an organization’s digital capabilities. In many instances, a digital transformation program includes – or is even built around – the aim of improving an organization’s digital maturity level.
- The digital workplace. Another important concept is the digital workplace, which is different from the virtual workplace. A virtual workplace implies an office of workers that work remotely. However, a digital workplace extends its scope to include digital maturity within the workplace itself. A workplace that is more digital would be more digitally mature and, as a result, more effective and productive.
Understanding and addressing each of these areas can help businesses design virtual workplaces that are functional, effective, and beneficial for all stakeholders.
Next, let’s look at some practical ways to begin developing or further enhance a virtual workplace.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Virtualizing the Workplace
To virtualize the workplace, managers start with a vision of how they want the workplace to look post-virtualization. Then they compare this to the current state of affairs.
That information can be used to guide other important decisions related to digital transformation and digital adoption.
Virtualization, in fact, is one important component of workplace digitalization and digital transformation in general.
To understand why virtualization is so important, it’s important to first understand the context:
- Workplace trends such as remote working are pressuring employers to become more virtual. The modern workforce is becoming more and more virtual. And remote work is a good thing, according to quite a few studies. This is probably why so many remote workers prefer working remotely and will often choose employers that offer remote working options. This puts pressure on organizations to evolve, or lose out on top talent.
- Technological innovations are continuing to drive major transformative trends, including working virtually. Technology itself, of course, is what makes remote working and virtual workplaces possible. The importance of skilled employees is, as mentioned, critical for an organization’s ability to adopt and utilize new technology. However, though technology is the catalyst for change, it is important to stay focused not just on employees’ skills, but also on the “human side” of the equation. After all, their support is critical for the success of any digital change effort.
- Organizations are realizing that virtualization can boost employee productivity, while simultaneously cutting down on office costs. Remote working reduces stress for a great many employees, while also improving productivity and performance. Freedoms such as the ability to work anywhere or have a flexible schedule also top the list of benefits for employees. And since an employee is not working in the office, there is no need for an organization to pay for that office space.
- All of these trends are helping to increase consideration for and acceptance of the virtual workplace. Since virtualizing the workspace offers so many benefits to both organizations and employees, it is no surprise to see the widespread emergence of remote work, virtual teams, and businesses that are entirely virtual. In fact, given the performance and cost improvements, business leaders may also wonder to what extent these benefits can help an organization gain a marketplace advantage.
The point is that virtualization is a business process that should serve an organization’s overall digital change agenda.
That agenda – digital transformation – should focus not only on the workplace, but also on enabling digital change where needed across the organization.
The nature and strategy of a digital transformation will vary depending on the precise context.
However, these changes are often necessary to keep up with an economy that is itself becoming more digital and virtual every day.
Virtualization should sync with and support related changes, such as:
- The development of a digital workplace. A digital workplace encompasses the virtual workplace, as well as other areas of the workplace that can be digitalized. These include the adoption not only of technology, but also of new digital-first workflows, tools, and strategies. Since, for instance, the efficiency of the digital workplace depends on employee productivity, businesses must also focus on the digitalization of employee training.
- Integrating digital workflows. Unfortunately, today’s workplace is home to countless apps, software platforms, tools, add-ons, and plugins. The sheer variety of software offers the promise of entirely new levels of productivity. But realizations often fall short. One common reason is the fragmented nature of the work place – employees must continually learn new processes and tools in order to stay productive and relevant in the fast-paced digital work world.
- Shrinking digital skills deficiencies. The digital skills gap refers to the gap between an employees’ actual skills and the skills they need to be productive and efficient. This can be counteracted with the help of automated digital training software, for instance. Through just-in-time training that is automated and virtual, software such as digital adoption platforms (DAPs), can accelerate employee onboarding, training, and ultimately their performance.
To support aims such as these, it is important to analyze the gap between desired and actual performance levels.
1. Assess digital maturity and the current state of the workplace
Digital maturity refers to the overall digital capability of an organization.
Models define a scale that covers the least digitally advanced to the most digitally advanced.
Deloitte’s model, for instance, derives a company’s digital maturity by measuring its digital capabilities across several areas:
- Customer. Digital technology should allow organizations to improve the customer experience and help customers view them as digital partners.
- Strategy. An organization’s digital maturity will directly affect an organization’s ability to transform and increase its competitive advantage. A digital strategy should be embedded directly into an organization’s structure.
- Technology. Technology should focus on meeting customer needs quickly, efficiently, and at a lower cost – which, with the right approach to technology, is certainly achievable.
- Operations. The right technology can also be used to dramatically change and enhance business operations, helping organizations improve their overall effectiveness, as well as their potential in the marketplace.
- Organizations and culture. People are as important to digital transformation and maturity as technology is. When people have a pro-technology attitude and are open to innovation and change, the culture will fuel organizational change and improve the results of change efforts.
The more digitally capable a business is across these areas, the more digitally mature it is.
Tools such as this can be used to assess one’s own digital maturity, as well as envision a goal point for the digital transformation process.
2. Design a strategy and a roadmap
Assessments will form the starting point for the design of a digital transformation roadmap.
The assessment above, for example, allows for the easy segmentation of business functions. This means it can also be used as a starter template for the digitalization of the workplace.
Other assessments can focus on specific business functions, processes, departments, and so forth.
Analyses and assessments should form the foundation of the actual strategy and roadmap.
This plan of action should include components such as:
- A timeline. The project’s timeline will lay out key dates for major events, describing the sequence of the project’s events. A roadmap, or an employee journey map in this case, can map out the journey that workers will take throughout the change process. It can be useful as a linear chart that explains what is occurring, why, who is affected, and who is responsible for which duties.
- Goal-oriented stages. The virtualization process will be tied to several types of goals and objectives. Virtualization may, for instance, be implemented to improve employee productivity or to enable large-scale remote working. However, each virtualization project should have its own set of project goals, such as rolling out software and training employees.
- Employee-centric design. The employees, as mentioned, are the actors that drive change forward. That’s why their motivation and fully engaged support matters so much. To improve their experience, it pays to invest in a structured approach to change management. This business discipline is specifically devoted to maximizing employee productivity and reducing stress by focusing on change at the individual level.
- Roles and responsibilities of teams. One use of the roadmap is to act as a go-to reference document for anyone on the team. Clarifying team members’ responsibilities will provide everyone with a better overall understanding of the process. That information, in turn, will help all teams operate more smoothly and efficiently.
- A written description of each stage. Many user journey maps include a detailed description written from the user’s perspective. If managers include this element in their change roadmaps, that description can help teams create a better experience for workers. It can include a description of their needs, their emotions, and what they need to accomplish during that stage of the journey.
Like user journey maps, these maps should tell the story of the employee’s journey through the change project.
Since they clearly explain the journey from the employees’ perspective, they can be very useful when developing a strategy for minimizing employee resistance.
Resistance, after all, is one of the chief obstacles to successful organizational change.
It can be avoided, however, with a communication that starts off on the right food.
Namely, change managers should, first and foremost…
3. Build awareness of the need to change
If employees aren’t made aware of the need for a change, they can become frustrated and resist.
This will make every step of the way, such as digital training, more difficult.
To avoid this problem, explain what will happen, why it is happening, and how it will happen. In fact, go even further by explaining how the changes will benefit each employee personally.
The most famous change management frameworks all stress the importance of making employees aware of the need for change.
The ADKAR model advocates set of steps that include the generation of…
- Awareness of the need for change
- Desire to support the change
- Knowledge of how to change
John Kotter’s 8-step roadmap also advocates “generating a sense of urgency” as its very first step.
When employees understand how the change will impact them – and how it will benefit them – at a personal level, it will be much easier to motivate them.
The result: they will more motivated to support and stay engaged with a change initiative.
4. Provide employees with tools and practical skills they need to effect change
Unless employees have the required tools, they won’t actually be able to complete a change project.
However, successful virtualization requires full digital adoption.
A digital adoption strategy is designed to enable the successful implementation and use of software tools.
Digital adoption strategies are built around:
- Modern digital adoption platforms. Digital adoption platforms are product training and adoption tools that automate digital software training. With the help of chatbots, AI, and a UI that guides users through workflows, these platforms make it easy to adopt new applications and accelerate time-to-competency.
- Maximizing the utilization of a platform and its features. A software platform’s ROI is based in large part on how fully that platform is utilized. A business that only uses some of a platform’s features, for instance, will be leaving a lot of potential value on the table. One aim of digital adoption is to ensure that a fully utilize a platform’s capabilities.
- Shrinking the digital skills gap. The digital skills gap can cause serious problems if it is too large. In fact, if employees don’t have a certain level of proficiency, this skills gap can interfere with an organization’s productivity or its ability to innovate.
A business that wants to virtualize its workforce and maximize software productivity might choose to create a robust digital training program as one of its digital transformation items.
Activities could focus on areas such as…
- Continual digital training for business software and tools. Since organizations are undergoing constant change – and since they are regularly adopting new software and workflows – it is important that employees keep learning. Perpetual learning is on the way to becoming the new norm in business. But to ensure that employees remain productive, it is important to adopt modern digital training tools.
- Training on how to work remotely. Not only must employees learn digital skills, they also need to understand the differences between working on-site and working remotely. Working remotely, for instance, requires greater self-discipline and self-management. And since remote workers spend so many hours alone, loneliness can become a problem. However, with the right training, employees can learn about these considerations before they even start.
- Onboarding and training for telecommuting-related software. Each organization will have its own stack of telecommuting technology, which can include platforms such as project management tools, video conferencing apps, or chat apps. In some instances, employees may require training for those specific tools.
- The personalization of training efforts. In training, personalization helps keep training as relevant as possible, which increases employees’ engagement and their rate of retention. Micro-training – the immediate delivery of contextually relevant information – is one good way to keep training as relevant and focused as possible.
Business changes that impact employees should be handled with care.
To effectively manage these changes and ensure their success, it is important to focus on change at the individual level, as we saw above.
The support and engagement of employees, after all, depends a great deal on whether they can buy into the change and, often, realize its value personally.
To keep employees motivated, it is important to keep monitoring sentiment and engagement during a change project, then react if necessary.
5. Provide support, reinforcement, and make adjustments as needed
Naturally, every organizational change initiative should be evaluated as it progresses.
The ability to stay agile here can translate into improved efficiency or even saving a project from failure.
Optimization efforts should revolve around:
- Data collection
Both short- and long-term changes to a virtualization program should be able to react to this data quickly, which requirement itself may make further changes necessary.
In the digital age, organizational performance depends on many things – including how an organization leverages data, analytics, artificial intelligence, and even modern business ideas, such as agile and lean.
How to Manage a Virtual Workplace
Managing a virtual workplace may feel different from managing a workforce on-site, but it is certainly possible.
Some require shifts in thinking, such as the focus on outcomes rather than other issues that become less relevant to remote working, such as social factors.
When building a virtual workplace, it is useful to take a systematic approach that centers around effective communication. After all, the effectiveness of the team’s communication directly impacts the workplace’s ability to function smoothly.
Here are a few points to focus on when developing a digital workplace or transitioning an on-site team:
- Build trust. Teams must have a certain level of trust to work together smoothly. A targeted communication strategy can help to build trust – such as daily video meetings or online work groups that are designed to be informal and social.
- Hire the right culture. One way to increase the likelihood that teams will operate smoothly is to ensure that they are a cultural fit. Careful screening can help eliminate candidates who might not share the same values and vision for the business.
- Set clear expectations. Expectations should be communicated clearly and documented online. These can include expectations related to the job, as well as any other relevant expectations, such as standards of conduct or communication.
- Stay focused on performance and results. Since the social element plays a smaller role in the virtual workplace, managers should pay closer attention to an employee’s results and their productivity. What should matter is not necessarily how or when someone does their work, but how productive they are.
- Create a toolbox of virtual workplace software. A virtual workplace will require a toolbox specifically designed to enable the virtual workplace. It should include communication tools, collaboration tools, and whatever other solutions can help the virtual workplace operate effectively.
- Modify business processes as needed. Virtual workplaces, like any other business area, can be improved. Since the organization’s performance depends, among other things, on how well its workplace functions, the virtual workplace should adapt and change if necessary. As with every business process, improving the virtual workplace can improve an organization’s overall performance.
Effective management is as essential for physical workplaces as it is for virtual ones.
Though the tactics and approaches may vary slightly from managing an office, it is still the same business function.
Managers are still needed to ensure that a workplace continues to operate smoothly, efficiently, and effectively.
How Employees Can Stay Productive in a Virtual Workplace: Tips and Strategies
As mentioned, employees should be trained on how to stay productive while telecommuting. That training should focus on workflows, behaviors, and choices that employees can make in order to increase their own productivity.
Managers, after all, can only do so much.
At a certain point, it is up to employees to manage themselves and maximize their own performance outcomes.
Maintain digital skill levels
This point is worth repeating, since it is so important.
Employees must understand that they also bear responsibility for staying productive and skilled. That is, they must also continue to study and learn.
It is useful to understand one’s own skill level in order to assess how their skills impact performance:
- Digital literacy is the most basic, fundamental skill level, which assumes that a person is comfortable using and learning software programs
- Competency is a term that claims a person has fundamental skills with a particular program and can perform certain tasks with that software
- More advanced users, sometimes called super users, have very high or expert-level proficiency with an application
It is not always necessary to become a super user in order to be productive. In some cases, that is completely unnecessary.
However, digital literacy and a certain level of competency is a must.
One’s own job duties and aspirations will often determine exactly how competent someone should become with a platform.
Use productivity apps to become more efficient and productive
“Productivity apps” is a category that embraces a wide range of software and types of software.
In general, a productivity app is an app that helps a worker become more productive.
These apps can include:
- Time management apps
- Apps that block distractions, such as social media or websites
- Automation tools, such as IFTTT or Zapier
- Mind mapping tools or digital notepads
- Chat bots for Slack
- In-app training software
In many cases, there are a number of productivity apps that workers could be using … but they just aren’t aware of them.
A bit of firsthand research into productivity apps is the first step towards discovering which productivity apps are out there and which ones can be useful for oneself.
Set up a workstation that is free of distractions
A workstation is just as important to remote workers as it is to those working in the office.
And, like an office workstation, is is just as important that the remote workstation enable productivity and minimize distractions.
When setting up a virtual workstation, therefore, remote workers should follow principles such as these:
- Create an area that is specifically designated for work
- Create boundaries and rules for others, to keep them from becoming distractions
- Follow a set of rules for oneself, such as adherence to a time schedule, in order to maintain productivity and accountability
Creating a boundary between the workspace and the rest of the world is an excellent technique for staying focused and on-task.
If, however, employees choose to work from arbitrary locations – such as the couch or the porch – it may be more difficult to concentrate.
Now, this rule is not necessary for everyone, but if distractions start interfering with work, then creating boundaries should be one of the first solutions to implement.
Final Thoughts: Virtualization Means More than Just Virtualization
Workplace virtualization, as we have seen, is becoming more and more common – and for good reason. There are quite a few benefits to remote working and the virtual office.
Not only are employees more productive and satisfied, organizations can cut costs and improve performance.
Virtualizing the workplace does require a few changes in thinking, digital technology, and in the way we work.
However, many business duties – such as management – remain essentially the same.
One thing that is necessary for virtualization, however, is training: it is essential for employees to become digitally literate and competent. For instance, digital adoption solutions and other training platforms can deliver just-in-time training that helps employees learn the right skills at exactly the right time.
Becoming virtualized not only requires new training software, however.
It is critical that organizations look at the wider context that is driving virtualization. Digital innovation, disruption, and transformation, for instance, continue to drive virtualization and other modern digital transformation trends.
Workspace virtualization is certainly becoming more and more necessary for the modern business. However, to truly stay in sync with the changing economy, it pays to understand other forces that are driving and affecting this trend, such as digital transformation.
Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.