Facing the Virtual World
By Peter Block
We now work in a virtual and digital world, with all of its joys and sorrows. Technology is credited with bringing the world closer together, spreading democracy, changing the nature of business, supplying round-the-clock connectivity. Geography has been made irrelevant. It is mesmerizing to grasp the world in a handheld device, much smarter than we will ever be.
Here are some aspects of this life that Human Resource (HR) practitioners deal with every day:
- Teams are made up of people who have never been in a room together. This gives rise to the question “How do we build a team that never or rarely meets face-to-face?”
- The well-defined workweek is no more. People are online and in touch and reachable most of their waking hours. And expect you to follow suit. If you ask people to leave their cell phones at the door, 40 percent say that this is not possible.
- We work at home. Our bedroom has become our office. Technology allows us to move our residence/office anywhere and have more control over our time.
- Speed is a value in and of itself. If something is quicker, it is attractive. If we are quicker, we are attractive. Slow food is considered a revolution. Fast food, a value proposition.
- Controlling costs is now the dominant value for most organizations, replacing the priority once given to the customer and the employee. Most every job and function (except top management) can be outsourced to reduce labor and benefit costs. Travel and training are cut on the rationale that current audio and video technology approximates the sights and sounds of being in the room together in real time.
The virtual world is sold on these features. More individual freedom. Work at home, learn at will, and control your own time. Get information you need on demand. Be a global citizen.
The challenge is to address the human and workplace consequences of the technological and cultural forces that constantly drive us toward speed, control, efficiency, and short-term results.
Organizations that will truly thrive over time are creating a future that transcends these pressures. They will focus making the choice to (1) act in service of the long run, and (2) act in service to those with little power. In this way they create an alternative narrative, one centered on creating high performance by putting the future in the hands of each member of an organization.
HR can help leaders transcend these pressures by developing leaders who give priority to building relationships between peers. Real relationships, not virtual ones. HR is a stance for leaders that gives more choice to people close to the work. HR is the realization that human values take priority over shareholder values. HR clients are all members of the organization, not just top management.
There are more important values than speed and scale and costs. Organizations are human systems first and technical processes second. Important learning requires face-to-face relationships where all learning is social.
Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013).
Peter Block is an author, consultant and citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is about empowerment, stewardship, chosen accountability and the reconciliation of community.
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