1999 Conference Proceedings

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Virtual Teams for the Disabled

Michael H. Howland
11921 Freedom Drive, Suite
Reston, VA 20190
1-888-442-2785

Who would you hire? Who would you hire if geography, mobility, time zones and work schedules were no barrier? Obviously, the candidate whose competencies were best suited to the job! That question is becoming more and more realistic as organizations world-wide are reaching out to hire employees who may work in other locales, in other time zones, in other countries. They are turning those employees into members of virtual teams -- teams who work together, coordinate their individual contributions, who problem solve and brainstorm and plan all via Internet. The emergence of a variety of collaborative work tools are serving to level the playing field for disabled workers by removing geography, mobility, and rigid time schedules from the requirements for employment.

What is different about the virtual workplace? In the traditional workplace the assumption has been that for work to take place, everyone has to be in the same place at the same time. Work is something that you travel to, that cannot begin until you arrive and that halts when you physically leave. That paradigm is rapidly eroding under world wide customer expectations that they should be able to receive 24 hour a day service, seven days a week and that assistance should be only a phone call, an Email or a FAX away. In today's world, the workday literally never ends for 40 million virtual workers. Organizations are either adapting to this new model, or they are going out of business. Virtual organizations are those that design their work processes so that they can be sustained by workers in a number of locations, operating at different times of the day and night, drawing upon central and shared knowledge banks to bring the experience of the entire organization to bear wherever it is needed.

Who are virtual workers? Virtual workers are those people who have discovered that work can be wherever they are. They know that collaboration does not have to take place face-to-face or even at the same time. They have grasped that it is quite possible to be a member of a team that you may rarely, if ever see. They have learned to organize their work around expectations, standards and goals, rather than in response to direct physical supervision and oversight. In the virtual work place we use tools that enable us to collaborate in the following situations:

How does this level the playing field? In the virtual workplace physical capabilities matter less than core competencies. As we survey the field of virtual organizations we are finding sales people, physicians, scientists, computer programmers, artists, editors, lawyers and researchers who do their work and earn their pay through collaboration on-line. Let me give you an example from our own experience: AKG has its computer programming staff in California, its Web designer in Maine, its senior trainer in Virginia and its marketing director in Colorado. A client in New York wanted to create an Internet mechanism to communicate with other senior financial managers throughout the Northeast.

The initial request came through our trainer who put a profile of the client up on our Knowledge Forum and send a simultaneous Email to both our programmer and our Web designers scheduling a conference call to brainstorm ideas for the Web site. Within a couple of hours the programmers had posted a prototype layout while the designer in Maine had drawn up a list of specifications for performance and suggested several ways of creating a look and feel that would match the image of senior comptrollers. That night, the Virginia trainer looked at the contributions from Maine and California and wrote a welcoming script users could follow to make best use of the site and suggested changes to both the designer and the programmer based on follow on conversations with the client. Within two days actual work time, the site was up and on the Web and ready for use.

What made this virtual collaboration possible? Well, besides the technology, which is readily available, and the software, which can be downloaded from the Internet, the key factor was trust and training. We find that the greatest impediment to virtual work is not technical, it's cultural. If you assume that work is something bounded by space and that you must be physically present in that space to do it, it's logical to conclude that teammates are the people you see on a daily basis and that management is something that requires line of sight control. These are cultural beliefs that have become imbedded in the way traditional organizations design work. In the virtual environment we have developed other means than physical proximity, sight and sound to coordinate our efforts. Instead, we rely on:

What's the future of virtual work for the disabled? As pressure grows on organizations and institutions to cut infrastructure costs, to speed turn around time and to make more efficient use of available talent in the marketplace, we see them turning increasingly to the virtual environment as the means to achieve these goals. The exponential growth of collaborative tools and assisted technology available via the Internet offers disabled workers expanding opportunities to engage the workplace, and with the use of adaptive technology, to remove the barrier of mobility from the equation of work.


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