"In My Organization, the Workers Work . . ."

I am quickly starting to hate and despise the words “virtual” and “remote.” That’s a shame, because they are perfectly decent words than can be very useful in the right place at the right time.

What I hate and despise is when those words are used to describe work and the people who do it. For example:

“We sold our office building and now we have a virtual office.”

“We allow some of our staff to work remotely when that’s appropriate.”

“I just hired two new people. One works in the office and the other is remote.”

“We are improving our infrastructure so we can work virtually.”

Go to your bookshelf. Blow the dust of your college-years copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and open it up. (OK, I know you didn’t do that, so just open a Google search window if you want to play along.)

Look up the words “virtual” and “remote.” Here is what you will find.

Synonyms for virtual:  indirect, unacknowledged, tacit, potential, implied, basic

Synonyms for remote: far-off, faraway, inaccessible, isolated, lonely, unknown, alien 

Antonyms for virtual: actual, authentic, real

Antonyms for remote: close, known, near, open, sociable, loved

Now think about what you are really saying when you describe your work environment and your coworkers or staff as “virtual” and “remote.” You are saying, “My inaccessible, lonely and unknown coworkers work in a way that is unacknowledged, implied, and indirect.”

When you use these words to describe what you do, when you do it, and how you do it, you are sending implicit and unconscious messages to those “remote” workers in your “virtual” office, and to your members, your customers, your clients, and yourself.

What if you just called the workplace, “work” and the staff, “workers?” Then, “In my organization, the remote staff work in a virtual office,” becomes “In my organization, the workers work.” And it hardly seems worth stating something that obvious.

“In my organization, workers work.” No judgment, no anxieties, just an accurate statement of what is so.

Try it for a week or two or three. Eliminate the words “virtual” and “remote” from conversations about how work gets done. Better yet, whenever you hear yourself using time and place as a measure of work getting done, stop yourself. Stop admiring Joe for always getting to the office early and leaving late. Stop making snarky remarks when Sally leaves at 3 pm to go to her daughter’s dance recital or soccer game. Let go of the outdated belief that work can only be done in a particular place at a particular time.

Change your language and your messages and, ultimately, your beliefs about work, and notice how much easier it is to focus on what is real, actual, and authentic. Reframe expectations so that desired results (including benchmarks and deadlines) are clear and explicitly agreed to by those responsible for creating them. Hold everyone accountable for producing those results, without exception. Focus on the ultimate outcomes, the advances and accomplishments that truly tell us that work has been done.

Then ask yourself, “Does it really matter when and where work gets done, as long as the results are what we wanted?”

That’s not virtual, and it isn’t remote. It is actual, and it is as close at hand as you decide to make it.