Five Steps to Virtual Participation

After a rather big all-employees meeting where everyone had the opportunity to actively participate in the company’s strategy, I was asked how the same energy could be generated in a virtual environment. As the race for workplace virtualization continues, I believe this is one of the biggest challenges that companies face in today’s global business environment.

Many companies have the different information technology tools drive their personnel global management. By providing employees with Instant Messaging, flexible workplaces, social network tools, VoIP phones, cloud-based document management and others tools, they see themselves ahead of the game AND driving cutting-edge collaboration and participation. However, I do not think that tools alone will harness participation of employees located all over the world, let alone keep them emotionally connected to their company. Even though the way we work is becoming more virtual, we are still lagging behind with regard to increasing collaboration.

So how can you ensure active participation of your employees in the virtual world? I have included some of the key aspects of the lessons learned from virtual participation below:

1. Communicate rather than inform

We love to tell everybody on the internal intranets about the great ideas we have and how our employees’ lives will change for the better. However, this very passive approach and data overload dilute the impact of most messages and do not really support collaboration. If you want your employees to show more involvement, give them a platform where they can communicate, provide input and challenge proposals rather than just a clipboard for news. What is a must in actual face-to-face discussions also holds true for virtual collaboration!

2. Provide time for participation

Putting energy into thinking, writing and speaking takes time. Surprisingly, when collaboration becomes virtual, managers and executives often expect employees to find time to do these things on top of their daily activities. Conversely, managers may not take these virtual workshops or meetings as seriously and feel that they are less relevant or important than face-to-face activities. Too often, employees have to rearrange their schedules in order to start work earlier or stay late to participate in global events. The employees who are most interested will do this, but the majority can fall through the cracks. To avoid this, it is important to let managers know that they should actively encourage virtual participation.

3. Involve all levels ‒ support staff as well as executives

It never fails to surprise me when executives and managers show a lack of virtual competence. Maybe this has to do with their seniority (they do not always feel that the activities of lower level employees should be their top priority) or their generation (they did not grow up checking their Facebook account during every free minute), but for many baby boomers virtual communication is the cheap brother of the personal chat. Web and telecommunication have become standard at most global companies. However, virtual chat, “likes” and intranet comments are usually not the regular communication tools of upper management, but rather the modes most likely used by younger and more IT savvy communities. One of my clients provided virtual mentorship, where young talents had the opportunity to coach executives in the use of newer virtual tools. These were exciting and positive partnerships!

4. Avoid cultural disadvantages

Even though English is used as a common language, competency levels still differ around the world. This means that local employees that have a limited active vocabulary in English might not be able to participate in global activities to the extent they would like; in addition, foreign sounding accents (of native as well as non-native speakers) can be a challenge for all participants. English speakers usually have a competitive advantage in this regard because they grasp the message faster AND therefore can react faster and in a more proficient way. However, more accurate wording could actually result in greater comprehension difficulties for others and in certain cases, it may even be necessary to provide interpreters, local virtual capabilities or asynchronous web events to support virtual participation around the world.

5. Consider gamification

We have all attended those long and rather tiresome web presentations, where only few people speak and have the opportunity to give their opinion. No wonder that these events do not support active collaboration. Gamification is already being extensively used in business for consumer marketing, but is only slowly gaining acceptance as a way to increase business participation. The reality is that fewer and fewer people are able to concentrate on something for more than ten minutes. Most virtual activities therefore either have to work around that time limit or the virtual activity has to become more playful by adding voting buttons, chat capabilities or creating small competitions.

You might say that this is also the case for participation in general and not just in a virtual environment. This is true, however, the challenge of virtuality is that it seems to help us grow closer and improve participation, but it actually requires us as executives and managers to more actively involve our employees around the world.

Our article was originally published in the CEO World Magazine in March 2014

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