Ten years ago, these things did not exist: Facebook, YouTube, twitter, LinkedIn. Google had not yet gone public, and Wikipedia was in its infancy. The smartphone was just coming into the market with limited capability.
The phrase "cloud computing" didn't come into common usage till around 2006.
It's really astonishing that all this has happened in such a short period of time. After tens of thousands of years of interacting with each other in pretty much the same way – face-to-face, or through a physical device (pictures, words, smoke signals) – we've suddenly become able to communicate over long distances instantaneously. This communication evolved quickly: from telegraph, to telephone and then to computers. But it's only over the past 10 or 15 years that our capabilities have allowed us to communicate so seamlessly that we can actually build pretty robust and three-dimensional relationships – including work relationships – with people we never meet in person.
After all, you and I are communicating right now. And if you were to wander around online and check out my blog, my business website, Facebook pages (personal and business), LinkedIn profile, Pinterest and Instagram accounts, or Google me and see all the stuff that comes up, in fairly short order you'd know more about me than most people who spent their whole lives living in the same town knew about each other only a generation ago.
Some people are appalled, and characterize these virtual relationships as actively awful – a travesty of real human interaction. Those at the other end of the spectrum proclaim that in-person and electronic relationships are the same, and that, in fact, people tend to be more authentic, fair-minded and self-disclosing when they're not face-to-face.
Whatever your emotional reaction to the proliferation of this new form of human interaction, the truth is: It's here to stay (barring the zombie apocalypse). And the latest iteration of it to hit the world of work is "talent as a service" (TaaS), the virtualizing of the work force.
Just read a really interesting article on this topic by Meghan M. Biro. She talks about it as a sensible and necessary evolution of the workplace. "What we're really talking about is on-demand talent in the cloud, the ability for anyone or any company to recruit individual talent and groups of talent for anything, at any time, for any kind of work and frequency, in any interation and/or for any ideation," she writes on forbes.com.
I partly agree with her, and partly don't. Having run a somewhat virtual company for 23 years (my business partner and I have always lived in different cities, and our consultants live all over the Western Hemisphere), I'm completely with her in regards to having specialized people available to do specialized work as needed – we work with most of our consultants by assignment, and it has worked well for us and for them. The 20-plus members of our team communicate largely by phone, e-mail, text and Skype.
But we've found we still need to see and be with each other; we need to spend time interacting in the age-old ways to bond ourselves into that elusive thing called team.
And it makes sense – remember that this ability to interact non-face-to-face has existed for less than the blink of an eye, evolutionarily. Even though we can work together without ever seeing each other, we're wired to need physical clues to fully trust and connect with others … and that wiring hasn't changed.
Here are some things we've found help to support strong bonds of affinity, creativity and trust when you're exploring the universe of TaaS:
Regularly get together as a whole team: Yes, in the same place. Once a year, at least. Twice a year is better. I know it's expensive and inconvenient, but meeting in person creates opportunities to experience the team as a team, in the ways we've been conditioned to look for since time immemorial.
Gather smaller groups even more regularly: I've noticed that getting smaller groups together to do important work has a "teaming" effect on the larger group – it's as though the whole team drafts off the energy that's created by the subgroup.
Take advantage of being in the same place: Whenever my business partner and I are in the same town, we make the effort to spend some time together. When consultants are in New York, they stop into the office. If two of our trainers are working with a client group, they try to hang out together afterward. All these little touch points build a web of connection that strengthen us through the times we're not together.
Use the most interactive medium feasible: Phone is a more interactive than e-mail or text; Skype/videoconference more than phone; and face-to-face more than Skype/video. It's easy to default to e-mail or text. But for more substantive and collaborative conversations (and especially for conversations that have a strong emotional component), phone, videoconference and face-to-face offer progressively more opportunities to build a team.
If we bring some of our age-old, time-tested ways of interacting into this new age, we can have the best of both worlds: strong, resilient teams whose members live and work all over the planet.