Nine Hidden Assumptions That Can Kill (Virtual) Collaboration

Manager: “Look, I know I said you could work from wherever you wanted, as long as you got the job done. And yes, I appreciate that you’ve arranged your entire schedule accordingly. Of course, you’re doing a great job! (Well, at least I think you are.) It’s just that the leadership around here believes that all of you could be doing an even better job if everyone came back into work. Yes, I realize you are working, but we want you working in the office. Yes, I guess this is an edict, but think of the upside! What upside? Sorry, that’s not in the script….”

Sound familiar? Yahoo and Best Buy sparked a barrage of (mostly unflattering) press recently when they ordered their telecommuting staffers to return to the mother ship (a.k.a. Corporate HQ). In effect, they were declaring their foray into the world of virtual collaboration just wasn’t cutting it. The news ignited a firestorm of controversy, with industry analysts, virtual collaboration experts and business leaders passionately weighing in on one side or another.

Why do companies like Best Buy and Yahoo invest so much in creating a flexible work environment in the first place, if they’re so willing to discard it later? Bottom line: Many senior leaders just don’t trust the concept enough to regard a virtual workplace as an essential component of running their business. And when the virtual workplace concept is seen as expendable, it becomes much easier to dismantle when times get tough.

So why don’t leaders trust the concept of a virtual workplace? I think it’s because they hold hidden (and in many cases, invalid) assumptions that guide their behavior and shape their attitudes toward virtual work. When assumptions stay hidden, they can’t be validated or explored. The result: Senior leaders approach virtual work with a skeptical eye, making it almost impossible for virtual teams to live up to expectations.

Here are some of the big hidden assumptions from a virtual leader’s point of view, which if not acknowledged and discussed, can bring the progress of a virtual team to a screeching halt – that is, if it’s ever allowed to get off the ground.

  • If I can’t see you, I have no idea if you’re really working. You’re logged on, but how do I know you’re really there? There are times when I need to count on your presence, but with your “flexible” hours, I never know which hours you’re working on any given day. (I have a hard time keeping track, so I’ve given up trying to remember.) I hate to think you’re trying to take advantage of this arrangement, but to be honest, sometimes I do. Since I have no idea how to share my concerns without upsetting both of us, I’ll keep my feelings to myself. I really hate feeling suspicious, and I’ll bet you hear it in my voice whenever we speak.
  • The more often I check in with you, the faster you’ll work. Since I can’t tell whether you’re taking our deadlines seriously, I feel the need to give you frequent reminders, using a variety of channels: email, IM, text, group chat, and sometimes, even phone. I hope that you appreciate how hard I am trying to keep you focused and on track, even though you don’t always seem happy to hear from me. I know you have a lot on your plate, and this is my way of making sure that our work stays front and center at all times, and that our priorities are perfectly aligned.
  • Small talk is a big waste of time. Since I want to make sure all of our conversations are super-efficient, let’s agree not to fritter away our valuable time on team calls by exchanging social niceties. That’s what FaceBook and Instagram are for! Let’s get right down to business and make sure we cover our key topics. If by some miracle we have time left on our agenda, people can have a little chit-chat if they want to. But please don’t expect me to stay on. I just don’t have time for that.
  • If I don’t get an instant response from you, I question your level of commitment. If you worked in the next office, I’d expect you to stop what you’re doing if I walked in. I want the same kind of responsiveness no matter where you work. Yes, you’ve told me that you’re sometimes on difficult calls that can’t be disturbed and that you’ll get back to me in a few minutes. You know what?! I don’t like waiting, and neither does my boss. If I can send messages during my calls, so can you. If you aren’t adept at multitasking, maybe this is not the right place for you.
  • If you need more than 40 hours a week to do your job, you must be doing it wrong. You’ve told me many times that you’re regularly putting in 50+ hours a week. Honestly, I have no idea why everything takes so long! I find myself wondering whether your work practices are as streamlined and efficient as they could be, since I’m not there to look over your shoulder. I’m afraid to suggest you take more training, because you’ll only tell me you don’t have the time. I’d like to spend time showing you a few new tricks, but when could we possibly fit it in?
  • If you never ask for help, you must be doing just fine. I assume you have everything under control if you don’t let me know otherwise. After all, I can’t see if you’re stressed, frustrated, or confused. Okay, I admit that I am prone to a bit of yelling when people report they’re in danger of missing a deliverable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come to me if you need something. Just try not to ask too often, because I have my own deliverables to get out the door. And sadly, I can’t help you determine which work is most important, because everything is urgent!
  • If I give you all the answers, you can get your work done faster. When you come to me for help in making a decision, it saves us both a lot of time if I can just give you the right answer. I realize you prefer talking through the pros and cons so you can make decisions on your own the next time. But given my experience and skills, we’re both better off if I make the decisions for you, so we can both get on to the rest of our work.
  • To come up with really innovative ideas, we have to be in the same room. There’s just no substitute for impromptu water cooler conversations or conference rooms full of high-test coffee and walls full of sticky notes. We’ve tried virtual brainstorming sessions a couple of times, but everyone seemed more interested in doing their email. At this point, it’s easier to revert to in-person discussions to coax our best creative thinking, even if it means flying people in from 20 locations, or making dozens of people drive three hours each way to get there. True creative collaboration just can’t be done virtually.
  • If a conversation is really important, let’s have it in person. I dread those awkward conversations where I have to address performance issues or surface other sensitive topics. It’s bad enough when we’re sitting face-to-face, observing each other’s expressions and reactions. But doing it on the phone – no thanks! I’d rather wait until we’re in the same room to address the really tough issues, even if it means waiting a few months until we can get together. Meanwhile, I’ll try to avoid tough topics for as long as I possibly can, even if it kills me.

If you’re serious about making virtual collaboration work for your organization, challenge both leaders and team members alike to own up to their assumptions and beliefs about what it takes to collaborate successfully from afar. That way, team members can openly discuss what they need from each other and how they want to work together to get work done. Admittedly, this is the kind of conversation that can be easier to have in person, but with a little (okay, a lot!) of planning, you can have really productive virtual discussion, too!


ABCs of Virtual Leadership – Quick Reference Guide for accelerating trust, building a level playing field, and creating social capital. This is one of several “job aids” that help participants of my Virtual Workshop Series to apply tips and techniques to their real-life situations.

Past Communiques that may spark a few ideas: Who Moved My Water Cooler?, Building Trust Within Virtual Teams – Small Steps Add Up, and Proven in Practice – Top Tips Essential to Virtual Project Team Performance.

Tips for Transitioning an Office-Based Company to Remote Work, article from Fast Company

Flexible Work Ban: Yahoo! The Modern Stone Age Family,  article by Phil Montero of The Anywhere Office


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