I'm the founder of FutureWork IQ where I spend my time assisting businesses to design digital workplaces or “offices in the cloud.” These environments enable companies to allow flexible and remote working for their teams. I also teach the digital literacy, fluency, communication and collaboration skills needed to work in these modern technology-rich workplaces.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with my daughter about the nuances of digital communication. We use an array of technologies to keep in touch, as we are some 9,000km apart. It was a fascinating discussion. We spoke about how much is read into text communication. For example, the message it sends when you can see your text message has been seen by the recipient, but the individual doesn‘t respond back. Or what a difference it makes to a text conversation when you add emojis, setting the tone for the update. Or when it’s important to move a conversation from asynchronous text to synchronous text and when to move from text to a video conversation.

Understanding how to communicate and collaborate virtually is a crucial virtual work skill. You need to develop the skill to not only create a congruent digital presence but also to use the tools at your disposal to create digital intimacy. Nowhere is this more important than when working with as distributed team. Not developing the art of digital communication can very easily result in a virtual team falling apart. (See When Remote Work Backfires, This Is Usually Why as an example)

A number of years ago we conducted one of the largest social technographic surveys of its kind in South Africa for a large multinational FMCG. We categorized the respondents as outlined in Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s groundbreaking book Groundswell.

Social Graphics

As with elsewhere in the world, which group do you think made up the largest grouping? You guessed it, it was the “Spectator“ category. These individuals sit on the sidelines as it were and observe the conversations happening on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Here‘s what is really important to understand. When you introduce an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) into the workplace, you will find the same general groupings, with the majority again being made up of the “Spectators.” This is a problem if people are separated by distance and one of the primary ways of keeping connected to colleagues is via the ESN. It is very easy for these individuals to become invisible, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
I would hazard a guess that at least half of your current team, does not feel comfortable enough to participate on the ESN and a solution to this has to be found or there will be a critical communication breakdown. One of the first things that you need to understand before you deploy your digital workplace is where everyone on the team is when it comes to their virtual work skills, and then to provide those who fall into the spectator category with the necessary training to acquire the skills to becoming an active participant on your ESN and elsewhere. Basically everyone on the team must have the skill to “work-out-loud” or to make their work visible virtually.
You would be just as surprised by how many individuals have major resistance to turning on their webcam or phone‘s front facing camera. This is just as crucial to overcome as is being a spectator on the ESN. Well functioning, effective and productive distributed teams almost all rely heavily on video communication when it comes to group meetings or individual one-on-one chats. This is especially the case when the conversation that needs to be had is a sensitive one.
The success of your flexible, remote working initiative is less about the technologies you use and more about the skill to effectively communicate using the tools that make up your digital workplace. Ensuring everyone has the ability to communicate and collaborate in technology rich environments will set you up for success.