“In the Office”: Communication in Virtual Environments

“In the Office”: Communication in Virtual Environments

Julie Radachy, Christa Ehmann Powers
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-762-3.ch019
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Using Smarthinking, Inc. as a case study, effective instant messaging is explored as a viable communication option for organizations, specifically virtual organizations, to decrease the feelings of isolation that telecommuters experience. Instant messaging is used to create a virtual team, thereby allowing its members to develop feelings of camaraderie and maintain and/or increase productivity while creating a virtual-organizational culture. In addition, the advantages and disadvantages of instant messaging are addressed from the perspective of the employees and the organization. Finally, the logistics of incorporating instant messaging into a virtual organization, from developing instant messaging guidelines and policies to encouraging effective synchronous communications, are examined.
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More corporations are allowing their employees to work remotely, yielding the possibility of nearly nineteen million telecommuters by 2021 (Cox, 2009) and modifying the notion of the physical building, the “brick and mortar” corporate headquarters, with its traditional satellite locations. In a similar vein, more and more businesses are delivering their products and services solely via Internet-based technologies, including online education companies, online publishing houses, and similar organizations offering online goods and services. With this in mind, it is important to evaluate how synchronous communication can not only effectively transmit information but also allow colleagues to collaborate and contribute in real-time and serve as both valuable and productive members of a team.

Virtual workplace environments in which coworkers may be scattered throughout the nation or the world need to incorporate synchronous communications that can enhance interactions between co-workers to a level that is at least as effective as face-to-face interactions. In pursuit of this goal, Smarthinking, Inc., a virtual education organization which aggregates hundreds of geographically-diverse employees to deliver 24/7 online tutoring and academic support to students and higher education institutions, determined that synchronous interactions would benefit both the employees and the organization as a whole. Although Smarthinking’s physical corporate offices in Washington, DC house a small team of employees, the vast majority of employees work around the globe, from any location with computer and Internet access. These employees log in to Smarthinking’s online tutoring application to provide real-time and asynchronous tutoring assistance to students from client institutions. Hence, large “shifts” of online tutors are working at any given time of day—even if the corporate office is closed—requiring a reliable form of communication among employees. Although organizations with virtual workforces may agree that communication is critical to developing an effective team, many of these organizations rely on synchronous communications outside of the virtual environment, such as conference calls (with or without video) or asynchronous communications within the environment, such as email, to conduct business-related activities. While email can certainly be beneficial in relaying information and in assisting in the collaboration between team members (Oldroyd, 2007), it typically lacks the speed and fluidity of a verbal conversation, especially since long periods of time can elapse between email transmissions. Telephone conversations, on the other hand, do invite users to actively participate in a dialogue, but such telecommunications often require participants to step outside the virtual workplace to do so. Furthermore, scheduling telephone conversations becomes difficult when users reside in different time zones. Chat-based instant messaging, however, offers its users the opportunity to engage in a real-time, continuous conversation within the virtual workspace. This further positions users to multi-task with both online communications and other assigned tasks, enabling them to maintain productivity levels. Instant messaging also allows users to collaborate on a project in real time (Reinig, 2009) and can mimic a face-to-face exchange by offering “near-synchronous communication…presence awareness…[and] high-profile notifications” (Garrett, 2007). Additionally, Internet chats fulfill the psychological need for real-time interaction with others, thus potentially decreasing the feelings of loneliness and isolation that many virtual employees experience. Furthermore, instant messaging offers skilled users a practical way to exchange information, thereby creating a sense of being “in the office” with others in the organization. Regularly using this form of synchronous communication can create a unique, efficient, and productive culture within the virtual organization, one that benefits the individual employees and the entire organization.

This chapter will examine the importance, the reasoning, and the impact of synchronous communication in virtual environments by evaluating effective synchronous interactions between colleagues. Drawing on the authors’ experiences of managing a large online team of employees, this chapter will offer a greater understanding of how real-time interactions can bolster levels of camaraderie and productivity in the virtual workplace.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Smarthinking: Based in Washington DC and employing over 1500 online tutors located around the world, Smarthinking is an education organization that provides online tutoring and academic support to students in higher education.

Virtual Organization: While it may have a physical plant or a physical central headquarters for some corporate employees, a virtual organization is one where the vast majority of its employees and/or consultants work entirely online often from dispersed geographic locations.

Sparkversation: This term originated from tutors at Smarthinking and blends the idea of a real-time conversation and the instant-messenger client to describe conversations that take place within the virtual organization.

Emoticon: An emoticon is a computer-generated picture that describes facial expressions during a chat-based interaction.

Social Presence: This characteristic once existed solely in face-to-face interactions where a receiver viewed facial expressions, the level of eye-contact, posture, etc. of the communicator to understand whether the receiver was invested in the conversation. Today, social presence is also relevant to online interactions and communication as senders and receivers transmit and interpret online exchanges including actual text, timing of textual transmissions, pauses, emoticons, and various abbreviations for physical responses (i.e. “Laugh Out Loud” or LOL).

Virtual-Organizational Culture: While all organizations have a unique culture, a virtual -organizational culture refers specifically to the relationships that are created through interactions between employees within the online organizational structure.

Computer-Mediated Communications (CMCs): Since this process of exchanging ideas between two or more communicators may include any number of computer facilitated technologies (instant messaging, online audio and video conferencing, etc.), computer-mediated communications can take place either asynchronously or synchronously.

Synchronous: Synchronous refers to communications that occur in real-time or near real time.

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