The sudden inversion of work practices from mainly co-present to mainly virtual has exposed rifts, maladjustment, resistance, volatility in performance, degradation of well-being, and the depletion of social capital. Of course, not every individual, team, and organization experiences the same effects to the same degree: Some are further ahead on the virtual collaboration curve, while others have faced a steeper adaptation challenge since the pandemic befell.
While for many professionals virtual collaboration is second nature, the majority of knowledge workers are adapted to a mixed model of mainly in situ work complemented by digital tools, from email and corporate intranets to enterprise social networks and group project management platforms, and the nowadays ubiquitous video conferencing. Broadly we understand virtual collaboration as the work of two or more people who share and create knowledge via a mediating interface based on digital technologies. This is to be contrasted to the direct, unmediated experience of co-present communication.
Virtual collaboration is not a binary practice; it is more like a variation on a continuum, between mostly unmediated and fully virtual. For example, video conferencing restores to some extent the face-to-face element of co-presence while separating the head from the rest of the body. Soon, animated avatars or holograms may add another layer of virtuality while perhaps allowing greater expressive freedom with whole-body telepresence, posture, and gesture. The introduction of new or unfamiliar virtual interfaces in collaborative knowledge work creates obstacles such as technological malfunctions, variable technology skills and resources (e.g. bandwidth) among team members, time lags, limitations to expression, scarcity of social cues, the poverty of shared frames of reference, a detachment from the shared mission, the absence of symbolic references to values and social hierarchies, a tendency toward silence and non-participation, and others.
These problems may produce second-order effects such as the loss of fluidity in interaction, an erosion of trust (or greater difficulty of establishing trust), a difficulty to convey tacit knowledge, the dissipation of empathy, and the weakening of group identity. On the other hand, digital tools present unprecedented opportunities for greater equality of participation, richer means of expression beyond speech and linear text, better structured deliberation and decision processes, time for reflection and measured response, inclusion across geographies and time zones, accessibility for people with disabilities, efficiency in the use of time, less travel and commuting, and the recording and archiving of discussions to name a few. This is why too many organizations still prefer the exchange of fixed documents (e.g. Doc or PDF) and letters (email) while resisting the adoption of shared editing, hypertext, wikis, short messaging, multimedia, and threaded discussions as forms of shared expression, not to mention recorded video, mixed reality, or other emerging technologies. In this respect, knowledge sharing in some organizations has not evolved too much from the digital equivalents of parchment and papyrus, while the younger generations are primarily adapted to modes of virtuality akin to TikTok and Pokémon Go. The digital tools and practices that most companies have been forced to adopt since the second half of 2020 are still primitive in comparison to the innovation shaping the future of virtual collaboration.
Our tools can be designed and used in ways that restrict, diminish and squander our human potential or in ways that expand, elevate and liberate our creative powers. More importantly, the more virtual the collaboration, the more prized, more appreciated, and less wasted the fewer instances of co-present interaction.