With volcanic ash grounding most flights in northern Europe, I’ve been thinking about web conferencing and distributed work. I work predominantly at a distance, using networked communications (what we used to call computer supported collaborative work), and have been doing so for over a decade. I have never met several of my clients in person and the same goes with some of my business partners. I can go many months without stepping foot in an airport. Flight cancellations don’t have much direct influence on my work, though I do understand the economic ramifications of the current situation.
Over the years I’ve used a lot of different technologies, from video conferencing to collaborative work spaces. Currently, my favourites are Zorap; Skype and Google Documents. I give more presentations online than I do in-person and I must say that online presenting has some real advantages – backchannels; ability to send links; engaged participants who can help others; etc.
But it’s not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide. For example, I once developed a Request for Proposals with a large group distributed across several time zones. Everyone could provide input for a specified period of time and then that issue was closed. Later, some people complained that their requirements were not being addressed. I was able to look at the revision history of the wiki and show that they had not even contributed on those issues. This stopped the complaints and we were able to move on.
I now take for granted my online personal knowledge management processes, such as social bookmarking; blogging and tweeting, but these habits make online collaboration much, much easier. However, these habits and practices have taken several years to develop and may not come easily to many workers. If economic conditions and events that disrupt air traffic drive organizations to use more online social tools, many people may be in for a shock. Work, as they know it, will change.