The Lure of the Virtual
Although organizational scholars have begun to study virtual work, they have yet to fully grapple with its diversity. We draw on semiotics to distinguish among three types of virtual work (virtual teams, remote control, and simulations) based on what it is that a technology makes virtual and whether work is done with or on, through, or within representations. Of the three types, simulations have been least studied, yet they have the greatest potential to change work’s historically tight coupling to physical objects. Through a case study of an automobile manufacturer, we show how digital simulation technologies prompted a shift from symbolic to iconic representation of vehicle performance. The increasing verisimilitude of iconic simulation models altered workers’ dependence on each other and on physical objects, leading management to confound operating within representations with operating with or on representations. With this mistaken understanding, and lured by the virtual, managers organized simulation work in virtual teams, thereby distancing workers from the physical referents of their models and making it difficult to empirically validate models. From this case study, we draw implications for the study of virtual work by examining how changes to work organization vary by type of virtual work.