For most of the time the virtual teams approach has been used in the modern industrial world, which is really since the internet and computer technology reached a point where it could support multi centre work, one of the key aspects most heavily exploited has been the outsourcing of more labour intensive, less technology or knowledge driven work to high volume, lower cost centres. Often this has been done to reduce or contain costs and as such, over the years, it has taken the form of call centres moving to India, back office support functions moving to Malaysia, computer coding moving to India, Russia and China and, in some cases, the work has been outsourced domestically rather than internationally to a centre where there is a larger pool of labour that will do the work for a lower cost.
While this form of outsourcing has been very disruptive to the employability of the lower skilled members of workforces in developed, so called first world countries, it has not been such a great threat to the higher skilled workers. These higher skilled workers have, instead, often seen their work-flow change to adopt to the virtual team approach. But, for them, it has meant that the people they manage are now in another location, while much of their peer group is still, often, co-located with them, speaks the same language, has the same cultural outlook and “feels” very familiar.
Continual Change To The Nature Of Outsourcing
All of this is, however, changing. The aging workforce in the developed nations is now becoming too small to provide even the relatively small pool of highly skilled workers for many projects, and the workers in the countries to which the work has been outsourced for so long are starting to mature their skills to the point where they can now compete on a level playing field with the first world high skilled workers. Combine this with the side effect of outsourcing the relatively simple work, work that in previous times was performed in the co-located team by the new graduates and developing personnel, where those low grade personnel now have not had the exposure that would have let them develop to become the higher skilled members of the project teams and things are starting to change.
Managing The Changes In Outsourcing
For organisations set up to manage this changing centre of gravity, this migration of skills is a relatively minor threat. They still need to maintain quality and pursue their new developments, only now much of this new development can be undertaken in what has been, and for many still is, seen as the developing world. Where this change is now being felt the hardest is in the hearts, minds and in many cases the bank accounts of the employees in the high skills centres. These previously safe and untouchable personnel are now having to come to terms with a world where they are no longer always the manager, managing down to a virtual team of high volume lower cost personnel. Now, they are faced with working across to peers located in these outsourcing centres and, in some cases, even finding themselves working for the people from those centres, people who have, over the last two decades, gone from being the apprentice to now being the master.
Changes Are Not Always Pleasant For Everyone
How the individuals and their organisations will react to this could be one of the defining points in the global workforce over the next few years, as the high tech jobs follow the low tech jobs out of the first world and into the developing world, leaving behind a range of lower skilled less transportable jobs. While economics have a way of balancing these things over time, it will take a number of years before the pendulum swings back and the work starts to flow back to where it used to be performed.
So, what does this mean for the world of virtual teams communications? Well, in some ways things will still be the same, the existing issues of communicating across cultures and time zones, communicating with people with different power distance and individuality expectations, different views of long term and short term investment horizons etc. these issues will exist as long as there are different cultures, which is to say they are here for the foreseeable future. What will change, I believe, is the directions of communication and the centre of gravity of many organisations. Suddenly people working in Europe or the USA, who have been used to dictating the times and terms of international video and telephone meetings to suit their routine may find their meeting agenda being set from Asia, schedules will be set from these other offices, along with policies, practices and priorities.
Evolution Of Outsourcing
Recognising and accepting this changing relationship will bring many additional skills and strengths to the global workforce. Organisations will, out of necessity, evolve from being mono-cultural to multi-cultural. But, for many in the western world, it will not come easily. Particularly those in the latter part of their careers, and unless the more costly nations can find a way to up skill the new starters in their organisations, such as the new and recent graduates, over the next few years the reversal of roles could start to become very pronounced.
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Do you have any experiences with outsourcing within a virtual team environment you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you.
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