This week I had a great 90 minute conversation with two researchers from a professional association (their association wishes to remain anonymous). They opened the call with a simple, but critical question, “If a CEO wants to get ahead of the virtual work curve, what should he or she be thinking about?” My reply focused on three questions the CEO should consider:

1. Will offshoring/outsourcing be playing a role?
2. Is the organization designed to be effective at virtual work?
3. Are the managers and employees skilled in the practices and tools for supporting virtual work?

I pose the first question as it is often the reason senior management is considering large-scale virtual work. However, as multiple authors have demonstrated, these are complex issues. Aron and Singh provide clear and powerful arguments regarding the importance of being able to measure what you outsource. Chesbrough & Teece provide an additional framework, which Chesbrough has extended into the arena of “open innovation.” Barthelemy provided an early set of considerations related to the “hidden costs of outsourcing.” These authors and many others argue against chasing wage rates and provide cogent methods for making an outsourcing or offshoring decision.

The second question speaks to a point I make in the first session of each of my classes – You can’t change just one thing (and the corollary, you can’t change everything at once). Organizational design is similar to the Skwish baby toy depicted here – if you pull on one node, but do not allow the others to shift, something is going to break. If the organization has been designed for more traditional forms of work (standard hours, face-to-face interaction), it may not be effective in more virtual modes. Multiple examples come to mind of employees being placed on globally dispersed virtual teams, but with their supervisor being chosen from their physical location – and solely because of their physical location. Not all of these local managers have the information necessary to be effective at evaluation and mentoring of employees focused on work unrelated to their own. Better is to consider how the organizational structure, practices, and tools may need to adjust in concert with a shift to more virtual work. Cisco appears to understand this issue with their much publicized creation of the role of Chief Globalization Officer, and the location of this job in Bangalore, India . Wim Elfrink (CGO) says “We are at the edge of a market transition and globalization is in effect about our ability to connect the dots, uniting the right people at the right moment at the right place at the right time.” India is a playing an important role in the global economy and they are structuring to take advantage of that dynamic. It doesn’t take global Fortune 100-scale issues to put such redesign on the table. Even limited efforts at virtual work may fail if the leadership is not prepared for broader organizational change.

The third question is a more micro form of the second, is the organization’s leadership ready to assess whether adjustments are needed in selection, training, and infrastructure to support this change in work design? The process of virtual work is more complex than more traditional forms, though this complexity may offer advantages in terms of access to human and other resources. However, study after study shows that the value cannot be gained without explicit attention to the process and tools needed to support virtual work. This is the genesis of my colleagues’ and my interest in more proactive approaches.

I expect that the aforementioned professional association members are already on their way to taking a proactive approach given their interest in “getting ahead of the curve.” I hope that these three questions provide them head-start around strategic, organizational design, and managerial issues. Please feel free to comment on the proactive measures your organizations have taken as they address more virtual forms of work. If the approach instead was more evolutionary, were there triggering events that helped or hindered the process?