Virtual first, digital first and distributed first are all terms to describe a form of remote working that means people’s primary place of work is not, and will never be, in a corporate HQ. Virtual-first companies may not even own a physical space and will simply book rooms, or spots in business hubs, if staff need to be together.
In a virtual-first environment, remote is the default setting with wide-ranging implications for the structure of tasks, logistics, work ethic, communication, procurement and delegation. It will also affect how the ebb and flow of organisational life is managed – from meetings to hiring and keeping people engaged and connected.
Virtual first requires a big shift in process – but also in mindset. If the human buy-in is not there, it will fall flat on its face with a conventional hybrid model, which combines home and office working, the most likely fall-back position.
A lot of the mainstream narrative has swung too far towards the positives and there hasn't been enough consideration of some of the downsides
Hand in hand with virtual first goes asynchronous working. That’s where business gets done but not necessarily with everyone on the same task at the same time. Getting comfortable with this more fragmented approach to managing flow is one of the challenges those leading in a virtual environment will have to get their heads around.
“The pandemic has given organisations pause for thought in terms of their investment in real estate, the impact of commuting times on employees and how these things contribute to both cost and environmental impact. It’s also challenged concerns that managers might have had around people’s productivity away from the office,” says David Collings, professor of human resource management at Dublin City University business school.
“We’re definitely at a new baseline in terms of what most organisations now think about the potential for people being at home for some, or a large proportion, of the time.”
Working from home has certainly suited a sizeable cohort. However, Collings says it has not been an unqualified success.
“For me, a lot of the mainstream narrative has swung too far towards the positives and there hasn’t been enough consideration of some of the downsides.”
In particular he highlights studies into productivity conducted during the pandemic.
“The research indicates that productivity has held up fairly well in the context of virtual work. The problem for me is what’s really being measured here,” he says. “A lot of the studies are looking at output as opposed to productivity and we know from other recent research that one of the ways people have kept their output up is by working longer hours, with consequences for their mental health and wellbeing.”
Collings also raises a flag about the negative impact of working apart on collaboration, a process seen as germane to good remote working.
“When we’re not co-located, we tend to double down on our close connections,” he says. “This means we work more with our immediate networks and those we worked well with prior to going virtual. Relationships with people we don’t know as well and our more distant networks are significantly negatively impacted.
“This is not positive in the long term as these are the groups most likely to provide us with new information.”
A study reported in last October's Nature magazine supports this view. It analysed the interactions of more than 60,000 US-based Microsoft employees during the first six months of the pandemic to look at the impact of company-wide remote work on collaboration and communication.
“Firm-wide, remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts,” the study says. “Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.”
The study also found that employees did not simply replace in-person communication with video or voice calls. Rather they communicated less overall and favoured fewer personal interactions, such as email and instant messaging.
The problem with this, the study concludes, is that these methods make it more difficult to convey and agree on the meaning of complex information.
Collings adds that this shortcoming can create a problem around innovation because bright ideas often come from an exchange of views between those from non-aligned networks.
“We did some research on virtual internships and found that while they were effective at removing things like distance barriers, meaning an intern could work for a company located anywhere, organisations had to be much more deliberate about socialising them and helping them build their contact networks – something that would have happened organically in the office,” he says. “Something similar applies with virtual teams.
My concern is how the lack of visibility and the lack of presence in an office may affect existing biases and play out in terms of career progression and opportunities
“Where possible, it’s always better to bring people together physically at the start of the project to begin building relationships and improve collaboration for when they go virtual.
“I don’t want to be overly negative about virtual working because it clearly has very significant benefits for many. But it’s a mistake to miss the challenges and problems that go with it,” Collings adds.
Among the other problems he identifies is the potential impact of a move to virtual first on diversity, gender and inclusion in the workplace.
“My concern is how the lack of visibility and the lack of presence in an office may affect existing biases and play out in terms of career progression and opportunities. I think it is one indicator we really need to keep a watchful eye on,” he says.