The Global Trend Toward Virtual Workplaces is Accelerating

By Martin Conboy

virtual-workplaceVirtual workplaces allow individuals to work from anywhere in the world at anytime. Enabled by the Internet and modern communications technology, they are ideal for companies that need the ability and flexibility to scale up or down quickly to meet the demands of the market yet need to keep infrastructure costs down. They offer greater flexibility for employees in regards to when and where they work. But there are potential downsides that organisations need to cater for.

Somewhere between 30 – 45 per cent of organisations, depending on which research you look at, employ contractors or remote employees. And the trend is on the rise. It is estimated that nearly 60 million US workers will be working as freelancers by 2020.

Organisations save money in not having to acquire office space and the associated costs of water, power, cabling, furniture and workstations. By leveraging cloud technology to deliver the applications to their virtual teams, organisations can streamline their systems and reduce the amount they need to invest in their IT infrastructure. The reduced costs and efficiency gains can be delivered to the customer in improved service.

And for the employees, they do not have to spend hours and money travelling to and from work. They can tailor their work around their other commitments. There was a recent report that came from Boston Consulting Group where they surveyed more than 200,000 people. The No. 1 factor for employee happiness on the job was appreciation and No. 2 was a good relationship with colleagues. Salary was No. 8 on the list.

What that means now is organizations can’t just use money, which is its biggest asset, to bring in the best employees. It means creating a corporate culture employees want to be a part of, it means providing a flexible work environment, it means exploring different types of ideas and experimenting.

However, there are specific issues and challenges in regards to recruiting and managing virtual teams that need to be considered.

The issues and challenges

Employees who are working from home or some other location can feel isolated and miss out on the sense of camaraderie enjoyed by people who work together. Recognition and respect from other workers and management is important for job satisfaction and career motivation. We are after all herd animals.

Keith Ferazzi, CEO of Ferazzi consulting, highlights how trust is important for teams to work together effectively. Establishing and building trust in traditional physical workplaces is hard enough. Trying to achieve in a virtual environment, where people cannot see each other on a regular basis, is a lot more difficult.

With new and different ways to interact with customers and more flexible ways for employees to work, there needs to be a rethink about how we create frameworks that bring out the best in people. Unless one understands the underlying culture of what drives your employees, you cannot build the office of the future. Even though employees will work from remote locations like their home, they still crave social contact. We are seeing the rise and rise of Hub offices that offer Wi-Fi and an environment where freelancers can come together with others to have a sense of community and a collegiate atmosphere that would not be possible if they were working in isolation from home.

Another major issue is the lack of skills needed to manage a virtual team effectively.   A 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management highlights how only 26% of HR departments offered any kind of special training or support for virtual team managers.

Dr. Thomas Frey, a futurist with the DaVinci Institute puts forward a proposition that workgroups will come together in much the same way that Hollywood comes together to make a movie and then break up after the project is over. “The future gets created in the minds of everyone around us. Virtually everyone has a hand in it, but not all contributions are equal. As you might imagine, a small group of people armed with powerful ideas can make a disproportionately large impact.”

“But creating the future needs to involve much more than just ideas. The ideas create a starting point but need to be put into a visual context, massaged, enhanced, and somehow made to spring to life.”
Frey speaks about ‘Business Colonies’. Business colonies are an evolving, new kind of organisational structure designed around matching talent with pending work projects. The operation will revolve around some combination of resident people based in a physical facility and a non-resident virtual workforce. Some will forego the cost of the physical facility completely, opting instead to form around an entirely virtual communications structure.

Most will be organised around a topical area best suited for the talent base of the core team. As an example, a team of photonics engineers will attract projects best suited for that kind of talent. Likewise, a working group of programmers specialising in computer gaming applications will serve as a magnet for new gaming projects.

In some instances, large corporations will launch their own business colonies as a way to expand capability without adding to their headcount. Staffed with a few project managers, the company will use the colony as a proving ground for experimental assignments best performed outside of the cultural bounds of existing workflow.

There is a lot of discussion around the physical work space and what would that look like in the future and how we would not necessarily ‘own’ the space that we occupied in a concrete sense as there would be a lot more ‘Hot Desking’ that would cater for disparate work groups that would only come together for special events and projects. Using new technologies like Skype and GoToMeeting to video conference and people bringing their own internet connecting device to work, (smart phone/tablet/ laptop etc.) as companies of the future would not impose restrictions on the tools one needs to do one’s job – think converging technologies, cloud and thin clients, yet using your own internet access device.

With a lot more people working remotely away from their employer’s physical location has implications for how real estate features into the mix: this will give metropolitan building owners and managers heart palpitations as in the future people will not go to where the work is, as we do now, in the future the work will go to where the people are. In Australia with the roll out of the National Broadband network (NBN) we will see the resurgence of rural and regional Australia as people opt for a work life balance and do away with the long commute and congested living.

Of course, if mobility is going to be one of the underlying trends then loss of the gateway devices (who has not accidently left a smart phone or laptop in a taxi?) will have to be a consideration and as these devices would not actually hold data on them per se as all data would be housed in the cloud so that it can be accessed anywhere, anyhow, anytime by anything so long as one has the relevant access codes. In other words, data will be the most important asset in the future and being able to access it, not the devices that the data is on.

In order to make sure that we are offering services that our customers want and need, we will use tools like ‘crowd sourcing’ to engage with customers to solve business and marketing problems. We will have to get used to collaborating outside of the standard business framework and work with our own communities of interest, workgroups, and social networks to test our ideas.

Recruiting your virtual workforce

Many organisations seem to place less effort when recruiting for a virtual workplace. Recruiting your virtual workforce requires the same level of effort if not more. If you don’t have the resources to effectively manage the processes required, particularly if the people you employing are casual or contract, then outsource it.

Poor hiring practices, with the resulting issues of high turn-over, mis-hires and bringing on board poor performers, has the potential of eliminating the benefits that can be gained from having a virtual workplace. Experience and fluency with technology and digital communication channels, though necessary, is not enough for someone to be a capable member of a virtual team.

Traditional competencies based around team work, organisation and motivation are still just as important. Start ups like www.virtualassistantmums.com are a case in point that are making headway in this new space.

Build trust and keep people motivated

Just because they are largely out of sight, make sure your virtual employees are not out of mind. A more conscientious effort is required to ensure everyone’s contribution is recognised and appreciated.

Most people are prepared to give others the benefit the doubt until proven otherwise and are generally enthusiastic about starting a new job. They start motivated and are willing to cooperate and work with others. But it’s how you build on that initial trust and keep them motivated.

The management team need to be extremely organised and develop a regular schedule of how and when they communicate with their team members. And just like with their on premise workforce develop reward and recognition programs that make remote employees feel appreciated and connected with the goals of the organisation

Ferazzi advises that managers should encourage personal connections between team members. The more they understand and find they have in common with others the more likely they are to bond and trust them. Managers can help encourage personal connections by starting meetings with people talking briefly about what they did on the weekend.

The right management skills

Ensure the leaders and managers in charge of your virtual teams have the necessary skills and appreciation of working in a virtual environment. Good communication and collaboration skills are vital – how well can they arrange and manage a Skype conference call to resolve an urgent issue or problem. They need the skills to use such digital services as well the telephone to maintain strong communication and cooperation with the team.

They need to be an exceptional listener. People use hand gestures, posture, and particularly facial expressions in communicating. These visual cues are mainly missing in the communication between virtual team members.

A lot of meaning can be lost in written chat messages and emails. Messages or notes can easily be misunderstood without the aid of voice tone or physical gestures. There is a tendency to sound short and curt without intending to be.

If working with teams from across the globe, cultural sensitivity is crucial.

Virtual workplaces offer companies as well as their employees and customers a range of benefits. But the teams you build need dedicated and specialised management.
Originally Published in the Sauce eNewsletter – theOutsourcing-Guide.com


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