Managing the Virtual Workforce

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managing-trainersThe phrases used to describe the newest phenomenon in the global workforce are numerous: working from home, telecommuting, remote job, virtual employee. All of these terms describe the ability to work outside of a traditional, co-located office environment. The parameters of the working arrangements will differ by employer but one thing is consistent: The virtual work environment is not a trend, it is a model that will continue to evolve and support the changing landscape of business.

The rapidly advancing technology available to businesses, as well as individuals, is a prime opportunity to develop virtual work arrangements. Rather than spending capital on a physical location, businesses can save money while their customers never know employees are working from their kitchen table.

Working from home is a siren song for many employees, offering an opportunity to reduce commute times, be more flexible with work schedules, and increase autonomy. For some employees, working from home or an off-site location provides these benefits and many more. However, for the ill-fitted employee, working from home can lead to disengagement and disintegrating productivity. The characteristics of those who will flourish or struggle in a remote environment vary by organization, job role, and personality, but some commonalities do exist.

Who should work in a virtual environment?

Discerning if a type of job will work well in a remote environment can be challenging. An effective leader will ask the following questions:

  • Does this position require a co-located office? If so, why?
  • Who are the customers? Where are the customers?
  • What are the benefits to the organization? What are the challenges?
  • Are systems in place to support a remote or virtual environment?

As a secondary concern, the person who fills the job role must also be a good fit to work outside of a co-located office. The person who is attracted to a work from home or remote position may not be the best person to accomplish the goals of the position. Introverted personalities tend to gravitate toward virtual environments—personally and professionally—because they are perceived as being safer. However, introverts may have a more difficult time reaching out to other employees. The best fit for a remote position are extroverted personalities who will work to build relationships and are not using a virtual environment to escape the co-located office.

Job descriptions

In crafting a job description for a remote employee, you will want to be very clear about what type of relationship the employee will have physically with the organization. For example, "The virtual assistant works from his home office and should be available to support the director between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m." If the employee will self-manage her schedule, the job description may sound more like, "Our successful sales managers are required to come into the office for monthly meetings. We do not expect them to be sitting at home answering emails—they will be out in the community building relationships." As you see, setting clear expectations in the job description will help prevent any misunderstandings about the remote or mobile job experience.

Your job description for a remote employee should focus on three key areas:

  • relationships
  • skills and competencies
  • job duties.

Relationships. The relationship component is critical because it demonstrates to the employee that her affiliation with others will be critical to her success. This section of the description can include reporting structure and departmental roles, but should also focus on who the employee will need to support. A remote or virtual position may attract a personality that is interested in the ability to work autonomously. However, the most successful remote employees know that they must rely on the organization, and not just themselves, to achieve their goals. It can be much easier to build relationships when employees are co-located; remote employees must be willing to take sometimes extreme measures to create those types of relationships.

Skills and Competencies. Skills and competencies are a good second paragraph to your job description for a remote employee. This is an opportunity to think about the characteristics of successful employees in your organization that bridge relationships and actual job duties. For example, "This position requires weekly collaboration with the finance department to report sales figures to the senior team." "The graphic designer is responsible for meeting with internal customers to create marketing materials using Adobe Suite products." A good job description will marry the broad characteristics that a successful employee has with the specific knowledge and skills she will need.

Job Duties. The last part of the job description will be the actual duties or performance indicators. A common practice is listing every possible task that may be required or, conversely, listing only a few with the caveat of "other duties as assigned." Remote employees need to understand the tasks expected of them and be measured on those tasks. If a manager supervises multiple people in the same remote job task, it is easy to inadvertently measure the co-workers against their required duties but also their willingness to take on additional tasks. Certainly, you want to reward those employees who demonstrate the ability to do more than is required, but you cannot hold employees against a standard that has never been communicated or formalized.

Engaging your remote employee

Most supervisors have heard the adage "employees don't leave jobs, they leave bosses." It is as true in virtual or remote environments as it is in co-located work environments. However, in remote situations it is much harder for supervisors to build trust with their team due to the constraints of the relationship. Perception is also much different within remote environments. If a supervisor in a co-located department stops by for a chat it is usually perceived as positive. However, if a supervisor calls a virtual employee unexpectedly and leaves a voicemail to "call me," the employee may only feel dread. Supervisors know how to engage co-located employees—they buy pizza for the team, let someone go home early on Friday afternoon, or give them the Employee of the Month parking spot. Engaging remote employees requires a bit more thought and a focus on four important factors:

  • trust
  • reward and recognition
  • relationships
  • corporate culture.

Trust. Trust is a difficult thing for many employees to give to their leaders. It is often cultivated after months and years of working together, in any type of organization. When attempting to build trust, one thing is critical, though often disregarded: You must do what you say you are going to do. The virtual environment is much more fluid than a traditional, co-located office environment and intentions can easily go by the wayside without the physical presence of a person to remind you about a task. Two things are key when you agree to do something for a virtual employee. First, follow up in an email. For example: "Jenny, this is just to follow up on our conversation this morning regarding the potential client from San Francisco. I will reach out to him via email no later than tomorrow and will let you know by Friday what his response is."

Second, put the task in writing in your own project management system. Your email program probably contains a calendar or task list that is an easy tool for managing your projects. Write the tasks down and assign yourself the time to follow up with your employee. You will find that by delivering on promises that impact the success of the employee, you will earn more trust and have a more highly engaged employee.

Reward and Recognition. Reward and recognition is another way to develop the engagement of a remote or virtual team. Research has shown that when effective recognition occurs in the workplace businesses have lower turnover and higher return on equity, so many studies have been done on what makes recognition effective. For virtual recognition to be effective, it must be timely, specific, value-based, and personal.

Just as time sometimes slips away after promising an employee a follow-up to a meeting, it also can be easy to forget to recognize a virtual or remote employee for a job well done. The purpose of timely recognition is to reinforce the positive behaviors that a supervisor wants to see repeated. If too much time passes between the event and the recognition, the employee and his co-workers will have a harder time connecting the cause and effect. Again, using your email planning tools, whether calendar or task list, can help a supervisor keep track of recognition that needs to occur.

Finally, recognition to a virtual employee should be personal. An email recognizing tremendous effort on a project may be very motivating to one employee, but a different employee may value public recognition at a team meeting. Recognition is not one size fits all, and it should be tailored to the individual employee. Because the remote environment can seem very impersonal, another tactic when recognizing an employee is to send a hand-written card to her home.

Relationships. Developing relationships in a remote environment can be challenging. There is no copier machine to stand over, no coffee pot to share, and so the interactions tend to be much more transactional than in a co-located office. Bill may email Amber to ask a question, but would probably feel uncomfortable adding, "So, do you have kids?" Virtual colleagues tend to have more professional relationships with their co-workers, but those personal connections are important as well. Knowing what state someone lives in, or his favorite place to grab a sandwich, may seem tangential but is actually important in creating roots for long-lasting employee retention and engagement.

Corporate Culture. Finally, when trying to engage your remote employees it is important to be able to relate the organization's, or your department's, culture virtually. Communication, again, is the key as employees cannot be invested in the organization if they are not clear about the goals or mission of the organization. For remote employees, it is very easy for signals to get crossed in terms of what is important to the organization. The annual goal may be to "increase customer satisfaction," but the remote employee may only see emails about cutting costs and managing the budget. That employee would, rightly, assume that the real focus of the organization is financials and not customer satisfaction.

A supervisor can reinforce the culture in a number of ways:

  • Include the mission statement on every meeting agenda or email footer.
  • Communicate any changes verbally and in writing to alleviate misunderstanding.
  • Ask employees to describe the culture— see if their descriptions match up with those of leadership.

Final thoughts

For many employers navigating the new virtual work environment, the landscape can seem very unfamiliar and treacherous. However, the technology available allows the savvy leader to incorporate time-tested strategies for management, engagement, and performance into the new virtual world. Also, there is ample opportunity to innovate and create new ways of thinking about performance that can propel the virtual team to success. The successful virtual work environment will be one that embraces new technology while staying true to the organization's mission and values

Reference: Infoline, The Virtual Workforce, 2013

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