As one of the Covid related jokes go, Covid happened to teach us how to properly wash our hands and keep the distance. Indeed, one may hope that the useful health and hygiene routines are here to stay even as the pandemic subsides. Covid also taught us how to work remotely, and what we can say already now is that virtual work is here to stay for sure!
In a recent perspectives article (Selmer et al., 2022) my colleagues and I discuss the potential of virtual work in a global work context. Specifically, we question and analyse to what extent virtual global mobility (VGM) can replace or complement physical global work assignments. In the article, we define VGM as the replacement of personal physical international interactions for work purposes with electronic personal online international interactions. In other words, we see VGM as moving work to people across national borders instead of moving people to their work.
As already mentioned, it is clear that VGM is here to stay, because it seems to have several important advantages. Naturally, the main advantages are related to cost savings and flexibility for organizations. Further, employees themselves seem to perceive virtual work as time and cost saving (e.g. less commute, less travel), and it provides them with the possibility to stay in their home community. Yet, VGM is not without faults either. Research on this topic indicates disadvantages of VGM such as weaker interpersonal relationships and extended working times due to different time zones and less clearcut work-life boundaries. Generally though, we argue that most virtual work issues can be successfully dealt with, so that they do not come to represent serious problems to productivity and wellbeing. Hence, the question is not WHETHER to use VGM, but rather HOW to use VGM. In the article we propose that the effectiveness of VGM and the extent to which it can replace physical global mobility depends on the purposes of global work mobility.
VGM seems to be generally suitable for the purposes of teaching business applications. For example, it can be used quite well for the managerial and professional transfer and application of know-how. Indeed, many educational organizations have switched at least partly to online education, finding it convenient, cost efficient and capable of producing acceptable results. Thereof it is quite viable that in the work realm certain types of knowledge and instructions can be effectively transferred via virtual communication channels as well.
For the second common purpose of global work, organization applications, VGM may only be partly suitable. Organization applications entail aims such as co-ordination and networking, culture and policy transfer, socialization and best practise system transfer. Co-ordination and networking, which can be achieved through personal inter-unit networks and implies a lot of relationship building, is best done via physical presence. VGM might be partly suitable for culture and policy transfer, socialization and best practice transfer activities, yet the best results might require coupling it with physical mobility. For instance, the effective application of policy transfer may be aided by some level of control, which is best ensured through physical presence of —or frequent visits by—expatriate.
Finally, global assignments aim at developing employees by providing learning by doing opportunities. Here VGM may be less suitable since the intention is to give global employees international experience and/or immersion into a specific culture. Although global employees may learn some aspects through virtual interactions with their host-country employees, it will not be equivalent to a physical presence in the foreign location. After all, a lot of culture-specific, salient information is becoming visible during coffee breaks and in the office corridors, outside of formal meeting times.
All in all, our analysis suggests a great promise for VGM! Yet, the implementation of VGM should be thoroughly thought through and planned, given its short- and longer-term replacement effects of global staff. For instance, replacing business travel aimed to share knowledge with virtual assignments might imply increases in responsibility and autonomy on the receiving end. Such autonomy might require an increase in local talents in the long term, but in the short term it might still call for maintaining a relevant number of physical visits by expatriate for initial support. VGM is unlikely to fully replace any type or function of global mobility, hence individuals will continue to physically travel, and hybrid forms of global work will continue to exist.