Human-centred virtual work environments for small international business consultancies

Is the future of work remote?

Nowadays, it is possible to work together anytime from anywhere. Team members are increasingly dispersed and diverse and do not need to work in the same location or time zone anymore due to the globalisation of organisations and the evolution of technologies, workstyles, values and behaviours. The Covid-19 global pandemic forced many people to practise remote work and eventually boosted digitalisation. It is likely to become even more commonplace in the future because of its positive impact on productivity, existing technological, natural and social resources. It becomes dominant because it enables distant employees to collaborate together, reduces costs, and because the benefits of physical proximity to other knowledge workers have diminished. Virtual work does not only bring economic advantages, but also in terms of flexibility, empowerment, personal freedom, and ecology.

“If we can make virtual working attractive, productive, efficient, compelling, enjoyable and, above all, a highly regarded alternative to face-to-face meetings, then organisations could save on travel time and costs and we could all benefit from reduced carbon emissions.”
– Heywood, 2016

Within the next decade, companies anticipate that more than one-third of their full-time, permanent workforce will work remotely. If this proves to be an accurate prediction, it would result in a remarkable decrease in face-to-face exchanges compensated only by a significant increase in virtual collaboration. Working remotely from any chosen place is a rising trend that makes enterprises face challenges to which they need to adapt quickly. Thus, team members have now possibilities to work through other means than being physically present.

“Increasingly, work is no longer about where you go, but about what you do and the impact you make.”

– Deloitte, 2020

This corresponds to the view that it is people’s personalities and strengths that will have an increasing impact on the means and the outcome of any interaction at work. Barrick, Mount and Judge (2008) also claim that at least some aspects of personality are meaningfully related to performance. Consequently, by understanding users’ environment, considering their experience and applying human factors, human-centred environments that support the differing needs of a range of personality traits manifesting themselves in terms of preferred means of communication, interaction, collaboration, and execution, for instance, contribute to successful outcomes.

What is meant by virtual work?

A virtual work environment is a workplace that is not located in a physical space but existing by means of digital media. What matters is the time- and location-independent nature of the (digital) environment that is used for work. Typically it is a network of various workplaces connecting people via a private network or the Internet without regard to geographical boundaries or the need for a centralised physical space.

One focus of this study is the adaptability of such virtual spaces to the personalities of the knowledge workers to increase individual and organisational performance. Personality can be defined as a dynamic and organised set of characteristics possessed by a person that uniquely influences his or her cognitions, motivations and behaviours in various situations.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.“

– Den Heijer, 2016

The solution proposed for a personality-virtual work environment fit

Following a literature analysis of its theoretical background, this study analyses the relationship of two variables: virtual work environment dimensions (ICT, Knowledge Intensity, Location, Intra-organisational Communication, Extra-organisational Communication), and the personality traits (Big Five Model) of knowledge workers working in international business consulting firms based in Europe.

The study made it possible to explore knowledge workers’ needs working virtually. It took a few rounds to synthesise the data into insights. The success criteria came up from sensemaking in action technique, an abductive process that has been proven to solve complex problems by personally working on information instead of merely absorbing it. Thus, analysing the interview transcripts and then synthesising them into insights led to a set of five categories and fifteen design principles proposed for designing virtual work environments adaptable to the personalities of knowledge workers.

These principles fall into five categories:
Pre-conditions — the must-haves
Purpose — the frame
People — the mindset
Place — the location
Process — the interaction

Pre-conditions

Build trust first
Managing employees in a virtual setting is different as direct supervision is almost absent. This way of working therefore requires more interpersonal trust. Trust is also the foundation of virtual work, possibly even more so.

Ensure ergonomic workplaces with reliable infrastructure
Bad technology and equipment make it both physically and emotionally very challenging to work virtually. Interruptions and bad ergonomics can completely disrupt or hinder a productive work process.

Choose intuitive and secure tools
The tools used should not be rocket science. It makes knowledge workers’ and their clients’ life easier and saves a lot of everyone’s time. They also need them to be secure — all participants should feel assured that their data will not be collected or misused.

Purpose

Introduce rituals and principles for interacting
As physical and social interaction is lacking in a virtual environment, it is important to initiate some rituals and routines to foster a sense of community and give some guidance. Furthermore, shared rules and principles on how to interact for differing purposes are crucial for a more reassuring virtual collaboration experience.

Give all interactions structure: purpose, aim, roles, agenda, responsibilities, time
To avoid going in all directions and ending up with no satisfying outcome, defining a clear frame for each virtual session prevents misunderstandings and inefficiencies.

Create a shared understanding of the boundaries between personal and professional space
Virtual work implies usually blurry delimitations between work and personal life as most knowledge workers do it from home. It also means being reachable at any time as the interactions are done digitally. Thus, defining common rules are important to avoid being overbearing and intrusive.

People

Be conscious of individual needs and preferences
Working virtually does not mean working regardless of other stakeholders. As virtual knowledge workers from the same company do not interact in the same physical space, it is meaningful in terms of wellbeing and productivity to be aware of their colleagues’ personal preferences and adapt accordingly.

Ensure everyone is familiar with the tools and technology used
Before starting a process of co-creation or interactions, making sure the participants have a sufficient level of virtual competence sets a good foundation for further steps. Otherwise, many frustrations and inefficiencies will come along the way.

Always be mindful of the personalities you are interacting with
Knowledge workers can have differing personality traits. It is also beneficial to take it into account and react accordingly. For instance, whereas extroverts might feel lonely very quickly, introverts could be uncomfortable with too much socialising.

Place

Design the work environment according to personalities and the nature of the task
It is crucial to define the adequate work environment beforehand (e.g. physical vs. virtual). While digital means are great for efficiency and the more simple direct interactions, some tasks can be too complex or too sensitive for virtual environments. Furthermore, the less conscientious and the extroverts might prefer physical spaces to make room for spontaneity and a more human touch.

Let knowledge workers choose where to work
Freedom and self-organisation are fundamental values for knowledge workers. As they work in a trusting climate, it becomes natural to work where they wish as long as it follows shared principles within the organisation.

Build-in options to retreat and reflect without distractions
Noise and constant inquiries are major pains for knowledge workers of any personality type. Thus, as and when needed, all virtual workers should have the possibility to find peace and silence to reflect or work without distraction.

Process

Over-communicate and make non-verbal feedback as visible as possible
Working and interacting by digital means removes many significant feedback and information people need. Thus, it is crucial to make sure to communicate thoroughly so that key messages do not get lost in the digital realm. Furthermore, having at least visual contact helps to have a more complete picture of what is going on (e.g. facial expressions, body language).

Make virtual sessions short and interactive
Because virtual sessions lack physical activity, the level of participants’ attention might vary more. Complexity should also be reduced. In addition, sitting in front of a screen makes the interaction less fun than in a physical setting. It is therefore essential to create a positive atmosphere and to make a conscious effort to make the session inspiring and interactive without making it too complicated (e.g. not more than three tools).

Foster experimentation and learning opportunities
In a field where things change quickly, it is essential to test and be up-to-date. Moreover, as knowledge workers from small international business agencies tend to be very open to experience by nature, having learning possibilities supports their willingness and ability to contribute.

Multi-level considerations

When reviewing the outcome of the study, some findings were anticipated, others were not. The assumptions that stable technology and good ergonomics are a prerequisite for virtual work and that virtual communication is not so simple were both confirmed. Even in a physical setting with the possibility to see the full picture, misunderstandings can happen frequently. Effective collaboration and human relations are difficult — there are as many perspectives as there are people. It was also predictable that this field, business consultancy, attracts a specific type of personality. Knowledge workers are very flexible and agile. It is natural for them to react to client’s and market needs. They also have the skills to work virtually (e.g. self-independence). As they tend to be very open people, they can see virtual work as a way to explore new ideas in a non-traditional environment. Thus, they have a fit with virtual organisations.

The proposed solution is to bring together the key success criteria of small international consulting firms to design virtual work environments based on the personalities and needs of knowledge workers. In addition, other points and recommendations are worth raising from an organisational, collective and individual point of view.

Organisational considerations

First, virtual work environments need to be aligned with the organisation’s purpose. Then, in order to account for the different personalities of knowledge workers, work environments need to adapt to the people accordingly. Having a culture that does not support individual differences cannot aspire to create human-centred spaces. It takes leadership, empathy and mindfulness to make this happen. It is, however, not only about implementing individuals’ needs but also to create a sense of community. Otherwise, cohesion dissolves and disconnection takes place.

In terms of strategy, any organisation always has the option of allocating resources to the design of (virtual) locations and spaces. It is likely that the teams will become more and more hybrid and the design of workspaces will have to follow accordingly. Designing interactions for either virtual or physical settings only will result in setbacks in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. It should never pose a problem if three people work from the office while two others work remotely, for instance. Contributing to ergonomic work environments — at home and at the office is an emerging requirement that directly impacts knowledge workers’ productivity and wellbeing. An organisation can also encourage changes of location to promote inspiration, avoid feeling trapped in a routine and help delineate work and personal life. In addition, as virtual work challenges traditional skills, the organisation could support knowledge workers by offering training and personal development.

Group considerations

Two of the most complex challenges for virtual teams in business consultancy are communication and co-creation. Working apart from each other limits interaction and collaboration on more complex topics where physical interaction is required. In terms of structure and processes, virtual work is managed differently too. It is crucial to remember that it is not a copy-paste of a physical session. It is an alternative way of working productively — from behaviour to content to supporting personalities. Within the team, when possible, agreeing to an individual personality’s most productive time of the day can help manage the process towards a better outcome. It is also important to separate simple catch-ups from working on content. Teams tend to jeopardise the outcome if working on the ‘what’ gets too mixed up with working on the ‘how’ of an issue. Picking the channel on purpose is key too. The nature of the message defines the communication method according to its sensitivity and complexity. While catch-ups can be done on the phone, a virtual workshop needs visual transmission so the video conference is more appropriate for instance. It is also important to contain the number of emails, phone calls, voice or written messages, video conferences, as well as face-to-face communication to cope with issues related to isolation, such as the lack of rich feedback or loneliness. However, even working and interacting remotely, a knowledge worker is never completely alone and needs to follow a code of conduct to function effectively with the rest of the team. In short, as is the case with working together in person in a physical space, it is always a matter of striking the right balance between individual needs and team cohesion in virtual spaces too.

Individual considerations

On top of being conscientious, being a virtual knowledge worker requires even more self-reliance and self-motivation as, most of the time, it is just them in front of a screen. This is also demanding in terms of emotional stability. There are many advantages to working virtually, such as more time for personal life, independence, no commuting, and efficiency. However, it also means fewer interactions with colleagues and fewer opportunities for unplanned, inspiring encounters. Business consultancy is already complex and knowledge-intense to begin with but virtual work also demands self-discipline, autonomy, variety, flexibility and poses additional demands on the feedback process. The study’s outcome supports this point because the participants’ emotional stability personality trait ranges from middle to high. Furthermore, in order to be the right fit for virtual work, the virtual knowledge worker needs to make sure to have the required skills, such as Individual Virtual Competency. With no aptitude with technology and no willingness to learn, virtual work cannot function productively. The study showed that all the participants feel comfortable with technology and are all very open to experience. It also indicated that they are very agreeable by nature. This personality trait is important in this field as well as for working virtually in order to maintain or strengthen the cohesion between the stakeholders.

In terms of process, in order to be more efficient and effective, it is beneficial to reduce duration and vary tasks. Working just with a screen can make it more difficult to stay focused and be in a state of flow. Structuring the day and physical activities help to concentrate and create mental space. Managing distractions is crucial too. By working in a virtual environment, knowledge workers are more exposed to notifications or other virtual solicitations from different channels. Thus, because knowledge workers are more isolated physically in a virtual context, they need to open up more to see the bigger picture. Self-awareness is crucial in adapting one’s own virtual work environment to be both more productive and feel good. However, it is also essential to be aware of the impact generated beyond the digital realm.

One for all, all for one

External factors, such as a pandemic accelerate digitalisation and bring virtual work into normalcy. On the one hand, it can be convenient for some organisations, and on the other hand, it can be very difficult for others that do not know where to start or how to go about it. Fortunately, this study took place during the misfortune of Covid-19. The timing was appropriate since all knowledge workers were working remotely, mostly from home. This intense period of virtual work was beneficial for capturing their needs in virtual work environments. This underlines the relevance and importance of this study, as participants predict that this pandemic is changing people’s behaviour and that this type of work is now dominant. Time will tell if it will be persistent and what the new normal will be. This is why it is essential for companies to remain agile and responsive to changing technology and market conditions.

The work on this thesis showed the relevance of the topic due to the current circumstances and the personal interest of the stakeholders in the psychological aspects of virtual work and how to improve situations accordingly. Personality in a working environment is a broad topic that is difficult to master, as human factors are unsystematic and diverse. Giving the opportunity to knowledge workers to optimise their virtual environment and encourage them to learn is a great proof that the company cares about their wellbeing. In the long run, this can result in more engaged, motivated and satisfied employees. In order to identify any specific impact, as a further step, it would be valuable to measure it. A comparison study between different small international business consultancies would be fruitful and instructive as well.

To conclude, having a virtual organisation, group and job fit is crucial to strive in this context. If knowledge workers match with this way of working, then the solution proposed (see above) can be applied within the virtual organisation. Furthermore, business consultancies’ ecosystem is constantly changing and the business model intensifies uncertainty. Knowledge workers need to embrace change and react in an agile manner to face new challenges and ways of working. Communication, empathy and mindfulness are part of the engine oil that enables virtual organisations to operate in an effective and human-centred manner. From that, it is possible to create virtual work environments adaptable to different needs and personalities. Building on human differences is potentially the best added value and selling proposition for today and tomorrow.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.”

Mahatma Gandhi

// Excerpt from my Master’s Thesis in Business Administration with a major in Entrepreneurship (Innovation & Growth), HES-SO/HEG Fribourg 2020.

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