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Three Elements for Successful Virtual Working (L. Gratton)

In recent years, millions of people worldwide have adapted to working virtually. In recent weeks, tens of millions have joined them, and more will continue to do so in the coming months. The lessons from the past — on how to acknowledge and balance the roles of technology, social needs, and work rhythms — are of crucial importance to us now. They can also become catalysts to longer-term change.

Virtual working began in earnest in the 1980s, fueled by technological developments. Freelancers — the social pioneers of virtual working — used the early incarnations of personal computers to design products, build code, and write and edit from their homes. From a work-life perspective, they loved the autonomy and flexibility, and they began to teach others how to configure home workspaces.

In the second wave, beginning around the early 2000s, the practice of virtual remote working expanded from the pioneering freelancers to include corporations. Technology companies’ “anytime, anywhere” mantra was taking hold. Across the world, businesses began to let employees work from home. They also began to expect them to work from home, at any hour of the day. But there were concerns that as people became isolated, their capacity to work collaboratively and innovate decreased. Virtual working could be lonely. That was the impetus for virtual coworking. Concerned about the downsides of solitary work lives, people began to cluster in coworking spaces. They wanted both the flexibility of virtual work and the camaraderie of fellow workers.

This set the tone for where we are today: having advanced collaborative platforms and tools and an understanding of the importance of face-to-face communication for emotional well-being.

Today, home-based workers are no longer just young parents who prefer to work from home, or employees of companies that are trying out schedules where people spend four days at the office and one day at home, or citizens of countries like Denmark, where flexible working is the norm. They are everyone, everywhere. We are all facing similar challenges, and we all have to be inventive and adaptive in our responses. But while the challenges are extraordinary in terms of speed and breadth, let’s remember that we are not moving into entirely uncharted territory.

Three key elements of virtual work

- Technology: Keep it intuitive and be prepared to experiment.

- Social needs: Reimagine the home workspace and make it human.

- Work rhythms: Embrace a daily ritual and focus on values.

As leaders, we have the chance to set the tone right now by focusing on these three key elements. Over the years, we have all developed bad working habits (too many meetings, too long commutes, not enough time with our families, a too heavy carbon footprint, etc.)

This moment gives us an opportunity to shift them and reset how we work. The COVID-19 pandemic shows more starkly than ever how we can embrace both the virtual and the physical and get the most from both. In the post-pandemic world, those leaders who are able to blend these ways of working will recover better and be more resilient for the future.

To read the full MIT Sloan article, please click here.


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