Analyzing the Ethical Pitfalls of All-Virtual Workplaces

Digital workplaces bring with them the promise of an ever-expanding pool of potentially employable workers. An employee free to move about the country and maximize their purchasing power thanks to an entirely-virtual workplace need not fear expensive metropolitan areas or the crime, crowding and chaos big cities often develop.

I am an advocate of telecommuting and virtual workplaces, not only because many of the positions I've held in the past have been made available exclusively through telecommuting. The benefits of virtual workplaces over brick-and-mortar establishments seem clear enough upon even cursory inspection: Employers can pull from a much larger pool of potential workers, virtual workplaces create a natural need for collaboration and communication between levels of a company, reductions in commuting time lead not only to fewer traffic jam-related headaches, but also to an overall greener workplace.

Be that as it may, there are also major ethical dilemmas unique to virtual workplaces. The division of employee and employer creates major questions related to true productivity, employee honesty, and the proper division of labor among members of a virtual group. The technological boundaries to virtual work are by and large behind us, and even boutique companies can make use of free-to-use virtual worlds like OpenSim and Second Life for meeting purposes. But the ethical questions remain.



Honesty and Productivity in Invisible Offices

Thanks to companies like Manpower Inc. and Dancing Ink Productions, researchers have a wealth of information available about the tectonic shift in the work force brought on by virtual commuting. Some virtual employees report productivity increases from a workplace free of "the boss" looming over their shoulders, but this also creates our first major problem – without a physical figure ensuring productivity, more than a few employees are likely to slouch.

I fell victim to this early on in my contracting career, and though no one I work with would call me a "slouch," physical distance from the office does make it harder to maintain an "office" state of mind.

Concerns about employee honesty can be broken down into two main areas of concern: Honesty relating to the quality of a final product produced in the virtual world, and honesty in the employer-employee relationship. Both areas are vital to the successful completion of a project, and both areas are central to the evolving view of ethics in an increasingly digital era.

Given the broad access to information the Internet allows, employers new to the virtual workplace often have concerns about whether portions of their virtual projects have been plagiarized. In order to combat the problems of plagiarism, companies should be clear about their policies on citing work drawn from other sources. Since plagiarized material opens a company to extensive liability, employers need to be certain their virtual employees understand that plagiarism comes with harsh penalties.

There are major ethical questions to be asked about the concept of dishonesty in the employer-employee relationship. Digital work places a premium on consistent communication between employee and employer, and if employees are dishonest about the progress of a project, the quality of research, or any other aspect of the final product, the employer will ultimately suffer. This creates less of a market incentive for companies to pursue virtual employees, and runs the risk of tainting virtual commuting as the refuge of clever sleight-of-hand artists.

Employees may feel that, since they are separated from a physical office, missing a deadline is not as important since physical superiors are not present. However, since most companies outsource projects to several independent contractors, each contractor depends on the timely work of others. If employees are dishonest about their progress in completing a project, the entire project could grind to a halt until other employees pick up the slack.

As the workplace moves into the virtual world, perceptions of honesty are evolving and moving to the forefront. Dishonest virtual employees may find their telecommuting privileges revoked or their duties sharply curtailed. As companies increasingly depend on employees they can trust to conduct themselves independently, untrustworthy workers will find themselves shut out of the virtual workplace. In this sense, the market will take care of itself.


A Premium on Communication

The temptation to view digital work as less pressing than being physically present in an office is a major hurdle, and companies should not expect that employees have previous experience maintaining communication with the main office when moved to a virtual environment. There are clear ethical issues here, not only for employees but also for employers, as the temptation to view virtual employment as a cost-cutting solution can often be a double-edged sword if employees lack the training to make them effective in a synthetic environment.

There have been discussions about virtual dress codes for avatars and industry interest in developing formal, in-person training seminars that lay out the importance of maintaining consistent communication throughout the duration of a virtual work project.

Both are good ideas that would go a long way in formalizing what is still an amorphous concept for most large offices. Developing clear standards limits the chance for employees to unintentionally run afoul of company policies while also providing employers with confidence that their trained employees can effectively collaborate in a virtual environment.

By clearly communicating to employees that digital work should be considered equal to in-office duties, and by implementing traditional forms of communication like occasional telephone “follow ups,” companies can limit opportunities for employees to view working from home as an “extended day off.”

Virtual commuting and all-digital workplaces can work, but the current climate of ad-hoc virtual workplaces will not provide employees with the security and clarity they like, nor will it provide companies with the productivity and single-minded work focus they expect. The problems of honesty, productivity and communication are not to be taken lightly, but they also should not condemn the wonderful concept of virtual work.

I invite your thoughts and contributions.

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