Virtual working versus relocation

New technology provides the opportunity for people to work remotely rather than relocate. Does this signal the end of relocation as we know it? Sue Shortland suggests otherwise.

New technology has become part and parcel of everyday working life. Business can be conducted remotely, via computers, telecommunications and the internet, enabling the use of video-conferencing, PCs, laptops, the blackberry, mobile phones, and so on, with new products being developed all the time.In addition to this, the world has become even more closely connected via air travel, enabling cost-effective business trips and regular long-distance commuting. Does this mean that the need to relocate people has gone for ever? It seems not. Paradoxically, data collected on the issue of work permits and working visas indicates that international relocation is alive and well. Domestic relocation, too, continues to be a feature of business life.Changes in practicesThe management of people has moved on from traditional, hierarchical forms of authority and control in stable unchanging organisational forms. Today, we see more participative and team-based styles of working. These require increased flexibility from workers, as organisations strive to achieve competitiveness thorough more decentralised operations and mass customisation` based across global spans of operation. This approach to management requires people to work co-operatively together. In addition, organisations are in a constant state of flux as mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures become more common.The participative, democratic competencies required to manage in such situations require participative and democratic styles, again enhanced through face-to-face contact. In the international arena, organisational change and requirements to increase competitiveness have led to increased emphasis on the employment of local nationals although staff from other countries may be drafted in to train them. Team working in the domestic but particularly in the international context requires the building of relationships, so that the diversity of skills and talents within the team can be leveraged to best effect.The importance of relationshipsOrganisations that work through networks of skilled individuals such as consultancies spend considerable sums of money on induction programmes where new joiners can meet both each other and established staff in their various countries of operation. The logic of this is that, once you have spent some days together, you are more likely to pick up the phone and call them when the need arises. This type of induction pays off: it builds relationships and networks, ultimately translating into client service and the bottom line.The implicationsInternational teams require members to work across geographical borders, time zones and societal cultures. Although it may not be feasible to relocate everyone to one location, a short period of working together at the beginning of the project can help to reduce misunderstandings, build working relationships and consequently raise productivity.Relocation is still required and practised, particularly in respect of the management of international teams. Frequent travel has become commonplace, with team-leader relocatees being based in one location and making business trips to various other sites to advise, train, develop and support team members. Relocation is also a necessity when it comes to the heading up of new business operations, in the restructuring of businesses and for everyday management, where face-to-face relationships are needed.Managing virtuallyAlthough virtual working can result in quickening the pace at which decisions are made and save on the need for travel and disturbance to family life, it does have its drawbacks. Misunderstanding is common when the opportunity to explore and explain communication does not facilitate open and shared dialogue. Virtual working internationally is particularly prone to cultural misunderstandings.Work-life balanceA further issue concerns time zones and the pressures that doing global business virtually places on individuals. For example, in a 24/7 world, colleagues working in America, Europe, Japan and Australia may wish to communicate virtually rather than journey long distances for meetings. Although frequent travel and its associated costs, jet lag and stress are avoided, there is a danger that, if this style of doing business is conducted frequently, some parties might regularly still be working at midnight while others are at work at breakfast time. Similarly, mobile devices such as blackberries and cell phones have the advantage that one is seldom out of contact, but this also presents the downside that we are always available. Clearly, there are implications for work-life balance.And in conclusion?Virtual working undoubtedly aids business and acts as a supplement to actually being there`, but its drawbacks, coupled with the requirements of business life, mean that there will always be a place for the learning and development, the management style and the building of relationships that come through relocation. © 2007. Article taken from pages 18-19 of the autumn 2006 edition of Re:locate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.