Professional Development

Is there such a thing as virtual competence?

Bob Dignen

In the last in the current series of Business English posts from Bob Dignen, Bob considers the five key skills that comprise ‘virtual competence’.

The world of work is becoming increasingly virtual. International teams are dispersed across the globe and forced to interact remotely via the media of email and teleconference. Consequently, interest is increasing in the idea of specific competencies which can support remote collaboration. But does it make sense to talk about ‘virtual competence’? I think it does, and believe that we can identify five key skills which are essential when collaborating whilst based in different locations.

The question is … are you curious enough?

1. Management of time

Time management is a key competence for remote workers. One of the great challenges of today’s virtual working environment is too much work. An added difficulty is balancing personal workflows against the priorities of colleagues located in different places, with different pressures. Colleagues who cannot manage their own time and meet their own schedules, and who slow others down by failing to provide necessary information in a timely manner, can be a real liability to a virtual team.

2. Responsibility for results

Organisations are no longer characterised by clear dividing lines of authority and responsibility. Things have become fuzzy. Effective virtual workers are individuals who take responsibility for making things happen in such an environment, and who show initiative in dealing with issues. They tend not to wait for others to suggest solutions, or to waste time complaining about workload. They dedicate their energies to delivering the results needed on time.

3. Transparency

One of the greatest problems with distance is invisibility. In virtual teams, it is often unclear exactly what is being done and by whom. This generates a number of problems: it can undermine a sense of common effort and progress, and it leads to duplication and non-aligned efforts. The failure to share proactively can also slow down the transfer of innovative ideas from one individual or organisation to another. Committing to transparent documenting and sharing of efforts is absolutely vital, both to the effective maintenance of relationships as well as the achievement of results.

4. Technology skills

The world of work is increasingly reliant on electronic media. And so technology skills become ever more vital – from PowerPoint design to webinar delivery; from competence in Twitter, and associated social media, to webpage construction; from teleconference administration and facilitation to app mastery. Not being savvy in these areas is a form of technical illiteracy which makes an individual a potential liability to his or her own virtual team.

5. Interpersonal excellence

In addition to the harder aspects of virtual competence, today’s professional also needs to be interpersonally excellent. Interpersonal excellence is not equivalent to just ‘being nice’ to others, to simply building warm and cosy working relationships. Interpersonal excellence means communicating in such a way as to support and manage the performance of others in order to reach results. This may mean creating positive rapport and mutual trust. It may also require provocation to change, engagement with resistance and even encouraging conflict, if this is what is required.

Of course, these thoughts are simply one perspective on what is needed to be effective in today’s virtual world. And perhaps the most important thing one can bring to the virtual meeting table is not a belief in any single perspective on virtual working, but simply a deep curiosity about perspectives themselves, a mindset of extended questioning and openness to different ideas which might help to deliver better results. Curiosity is both an attitude and a working style which can help those working virtually to connect and re-connect, driving performance towards agreed goals. The question is … are you curious enough?

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