Virtual work, virtual offices, remote work, telecommuting, telework – whatever term you use – it all means essentially the same thing – employees are working from multiple locations on a permanent or semi-permanent basis and relying on some form of communication to stay in the loop.
Remote work is NOT a new concept. It has existed for years. Roles such as sales, merchandising, and most forms of consulting have always included required a travel component and/or a home office as part of the job description. I’ve personally spent years either working from a hotel room somewhere in North America.
Virtual work definitely has advantages, disadvantages and the need for a set of best practices or policies to be truly effective. Is it time to take a look what are your guidelines for this employee model? Not only is virtual work becoming more widely accepted, it is also anticipated to be more prevalent in the future.
Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions on what needs to be considered when hiring, building, leading and managing distributed teams.
- Look for talent that exhibits self-discipline, self-motivation and a tremendous amount of focus. These individuals will do better than others and are often the happiest working on their own. Remember, not every individual is best suited to this style of working. Many flourish. Others flounder.
- Although some believe that virtual work is conducive to providing a better work-life balance, it ‘depends’ on a number of things. It can also be a double edged sword. When employees are no longer are faced with long commutes, they will definitely have more ‘at home’ time. That may mean an earlier start to the day, more family time at the end of the day and fewer interruptions. Unfortunately people prone to ‘multi-tasking’ can be challenged. Things that normally are done on the weekend can slip into the work day.
Advantages of the virtual work style
- Employee Advantages – saves on commuting time, reduces transportation costs, benefits the environment, allows people to live in more affordable locations, offers flexible working hours, disciplined people may even be more productive at home
- Business Advantages – lower overhead costs, uncover the natural leaders and advocates within the company, maintain lower salaries, increased productivity, perceived as a company benefit, ability to address peak hour customer demands, increased hours for support service coverage, global business expansion
Successful virtual working is determined in by the selection of appropriate employees utilizing the right technologies for the tasks.
Disadvantages of virtual work style
- Employee Disadvantages – some people may feel isolated and ‘forgotten’, harder to resolve team conflict, more challenging to visually present thoughts and ideas or voice an opinion, possibility for increased misunderstanding and tension, temptation to let issues go without being resolved, hard to build rapport with colleagues, possible cases of perceived unfairness
- Business Disadvantages – Managing people in various time zones can be difficult, communication may be impacted allowing for greater room for misinterpretation, team bonding opportunities are limited, harder to create, establish, instil and develop company culture, variety of internet connection performance and tools
By far, the greatest disadvantage for everyone is performance management. It must be escalated from the annual model to a daily responsibility. This means tracking and keeping metrix will be on the agenda.
Best Practices and/or Policies for Virtual Work
Constructing definitive guidelines, setting clear parameters for working and providing some kind of structure benefits everyone that works outside the traditional office environment. My suggestions include:
- Onboard new employees at the offices
- Spend scheduled time in person (or on video chat) supporting employees in new roles or recently promoted
- Make over communication the expected work standard
- Provide training in active listening skills
- Give feedback and deliver bad news in person (only if necessary use video chat)
- Encourage the use of emoticons to help clarify (emails or chat) to help convey meaning when there is no tone of voice or facial expression
- Increased frequency of verbal check-ins and equally balance audio meetings, e-mail, voice mail, video conferencing, and face-to-face communications
- Arrange for team get togethers at regular intervals
- Include employees in discussions well ahead of planned changes or transitions
- Stipulate that managers be held responsible and accountable for determining which employees have the necessary skills/ traits to be successful working remotely
- Commit to investments in technology to facilitate better communication, purchase or develop tools to support remote workers i.e. Digital Whiteboards, online project tracking and communication services, fully developed company intranets
And finally, it is the element of genuine trust that builds the foundation of any successful virtual team.
Virtual work can be very cost effective, productive and efficient when managed effectively. To ensure a virtual team will be successful, it is critical that best practices and guidelines exist, the right technology is in place, clear communication is the norm and colleagues commit to being open and honest with each other. Although today virtual workplaces are not appropriate for all jobs that may change in the future….. So get ready now.
On a final note “Are you cut out to work from home?”
Permission to share the following article, “3 Requirements for Any Successful Virtual Team”, was generously provided by the very accomplished Randy Conley, VP Client Services & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. Randy’s points are well taken. He has included a copy of his white paper entitled “Achieving Excellence, Virtually”.. Randy’s details are included at the end of his article.
3 Requirements for Any Successful Virtual Team
Posted on September 28, 2014by Randy Conley
Fifteen years ago it was a different story. I remember asking my boss at the time if I could telecommute one day a week. I have a 40 mile (one way) commute to the office and spend nearly two hours a day driving back and forth to work. I argued that I could spend those two additional hours working, not driving. The answer? A resounding “no.” Even though the technology at the time could support it, culturally our organization wasn’t ready. My, how times have changed!
There is a wide variety in the definition of what comprises “working virtually.” It can include those who work full-time from home, part-time telecommuting, and everything in between. Regardless of the amount of time you or co-workers spend working off-site, virtual teams have unique needs that need to be addressed if they are to reach their maximum potential and effectiveness.
All successful virtual teams have three common characteristics: trust, attentiveness, and communication.
Trust – Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship and it’s even more important when building relationships virtually. Without the benefit of regular face to face contact (or any face to face contact), virtual teams have to be much more intentional about focusing on building trust.
There are four core elements of trust: competence, integrity, care, and dependability. Virtual team members can build trust by demonstrating competence in their responsibilities, integrity in their actions, care by developing personal relationships with colleagues, and dependability by following through on commitments.
Attentiveness – It’s easy to “check out” or fly under the radar when working on a virtual team. Without the benefit of face to face communication, virtual team members have to work extra hard at being attentive through their verbal and electronic interactions.
Leaders of virtual teams have to be diligent about encouraging participation, dealing with conflict, and appropriately rewarding and recognizing team members.
Communication – Body language adds tremendous context to communication with some studies suggesting it comprises more than 55% of the message transmitted…and virtual teams miss out on that (unless you regularly use webcams which I highly recommend).
Virtual team members have to work diligently on their tone of communications (written and verbal) and learn to be more perceptive of the emotional content of the message being communicated.
Trust, attentiveness, and communication are essential characteristics of virtual teams and there are a number of strategies leaders can employ to develop these attributes in their teams. To learn more, I encourage you to download our free white paper, Achieving Excellence, Virtually.
Randy Conley is the Vice President of Client Services & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He has been named a Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Randy holds a Masters Degree in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley where he shares thoughts on leadership and trust.