Technology continues to transform virtually every aspect of the workplace. With an abundance of high performance laptops, tablets, smartphones, VoIP, and with applications such as WebEx and Skype employees can virtually work from anywhere and be as productive as working within an office. Many will argue that the benefits of virtual work abound, and that it is indeed the trend of the future. There is no question that there are many cost savings and environmental benefits to working virtual including reduced overheads, cheaper fuel and lower green gas emissions along with greater employee autonomy. Besides that, who really wants to put up with rush hour?
Realistically however, employers need to fully explore the issues that arise from virtual work and strike a balance that engages and connects the mobile workforce for maximum returns.
Culture – Workplace culture is the heartbeat of any company. It helps define company brands, and attract and retain top performers. What happens when employers allow a large segment of their workforce to go virtual? At what point or threshold does a “virtual workplace” start to affect culture and how do employers protect company culture from deteriorating? While the actual threshold may vary depending on the size of the company, a good rule of thumb is to start asking these types of questions as your virtual workforce climbs to the 15-20% level. Retaining a cultural essence with a large percentage of virtual workers becomes more challenging. Steps can be taken to ensure that scheduled in-office face time occurs at regular intervals for staff meetings, informal get together and other work type events.
Team – There are roles within organizations that simply do not lend themselves for virtual work. Roles that are team dependent are one such example. Allowing employees to physically leave a team where the nature of the work is dependent on inter-cooperation and joint problem solving can become less productive for both the team at the work location and the individual employee now working virtual/mobile.
Solitude – Virtual, mobile work is not for everyone. Many employees require daily camaraderie as part of their workflow and overall job satisfaction. Remove this and what is left is simply the work that may seem less appealing without the added social benefit of colleagues. The day is now more about work production and less about social interaction. As a virtual worker, one becomes less visible and more subject to “out of sight, out of mind.” This is where extra effort is required on the part of the employee to stay connected with their peers and managers at work so that their career progression does not stall or become derailed simply due to working virtual.
Expectations – Working from home is an altered contractual arrangement. For employers, it requires a different management approach to balance autonomy with observation, and so regularly scheduled check-ins along with more formal meetings on a regular basis become more critical. At the same time, virtual employees’ need to respect that they still work for the company and must adhere to all the same rules and protocols required of a regular employee. This extends to the safeguarding of proprietary data/company information along with acceptable usage of social media and other emerging technologies during working hours.
Telecommuting vs. Virtual Worker – Telecommuting allows employees the opportunity to maximize technology by occasionally working away from the office while maintaining office space as their primary work location. Similar to the virtual worker approach, provided that there is a clear understanding on expectations, telecommuting can boost productivity by allowing employees the opportunity to maximize their time.
The Bottom Line – Given the technology shifts and constantly emerging capability to work remotely, it would be unwise to bet against an ever-increasing number of virtual workers in the future. While risks do exist for both organizations and employees alike, thoughtful consideration and preparation from managers and employees may actually improve the overall output of work along with the overall satisfaction and engagement of employees. Virtual employees must strive harder to stay connected and managers must do the same to ensure that communication, job expectations, recognition and other factors remain strong and that employees continue to feel valued.
Most recent Ceridian-Decima research highlights the evolving complexities in the modern workplace with multi-generational workforces in place, and the need for more personalized communication, coupled with more career performance/progression discussions and efforts at recognizing and making employees feel valued. Certainly the same can be said if not more so in creating and maintaining a highly mobile workforce.
– John Cardella is the Executive Vice-President and Chief People Officer for North American HR Operations, Ceridian HCM.