The latest figures estimate that around 20-25% of US workers telecommute at least part of the time. It is a number we can expect to grow given the rising demand by professionals for the ability to work outside a traditional office or from home at least part-time. In one survey, more than one-third of the respondents said they would change jobs to work remotely at least some of the time. Today, a total of 170 companies operate 100% virtually, again a number we can expect to climb as technology continues to evolve and supply even more tools that enable people to function away from the office. However, when we talk about virtual workers, we must also take into account the number of virtual teams as globalization means companies have offices and employees all over the world. Not surprisingly, the IT industry has the highest percentage of remote workers.
Source: Small Business Trends
Benefits of the virtual worker
First, let’s look at what an employer has to gain from hiring virtual workers. TELUS, a Canadian national telecommunications company, which says that 70% of its workforce spends some portion of their week working virtually, reports the following:
- Projected net cash flow savings of $163 million over 20 years from on-going real estate consolidation and other related areas of cost optimization
- Return on team members, measured through a 34 point increase in employee engagement scores over nine years and a Work Styles program satisfaction score of 96%.
- 5 GWh of reduced energy consumption, and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 32.8 million km of employee commuting eliminated since program inauguration.
For the virtual worker, the pluses include increased quality of life and financial savings. Given the benefits to organizations, and for employees, it is more likely that working virtually will expand, and leaders need to understand challenges associated with this.
Potential problems for remote workers
Working remotely can have its challenges for engagement and distraction. In an article in Fast Company, the authors list several challenges those new to working remotely can face – including getting distracted too easily, not setting boundaries and not having the right setup. For employers, there is also the issue of maintaining accountability.
As noted in a Hubstaff blog post, 7 Deadly Disadvantages of Working from Home and How to Counter Them, “It becomes hard to monitor how they work, or their deliverables. The degree of procrastination is something that can spiral out of control. Depending on the type of role you hire for; it is important to know how you are going to monitor their status.”
How to lead virtual teams
Google recently completed a two-year study on remote work. Given that two in five workgroups include Googlers in more than one location, they have at their hands the ideal workforce upon which to perform research into virtual teams.
Here are their top three tips that Google now uses to make dispersed teams feel united.
- Get to know each other as people. Before getting right to business exchange some details such as plans for the weekend to build a relationship.
- Set boundaries. Do not just make assumptions around time and preferred working hours. Elicit feedback to establish the preferred times for meetings and projects.
- Forge in-person and virtual connections. Managers should make sure that when possible, team members meet in person. Also, when on video calls, be sure to acknowledge the contributions of all present regardless of their location.
Skillsoft can help develop virtual leadership skills
As part of the Skillsoft Leadership Development Program (SLDP), we offer a channel of curated assets on leading virtually that can be accessed anytime, anywhere there is an internet connection. Also, our channels on cross-cultural leadership and embracing diversity provide additional information for those who have international team members.
We also feature Tamara Erickson, who is an award-winning author, expert on the changing workforce and an adjunct professor of organizational behavior at the London School of Business. She believes that “As a leader, you have to take responsibility of making sure people have the time and opportunity to get to know each other. So build that into the early process.”
The SLDP offers a selection of video-based courses, books, audiobooks, and also practice materials for leaders to guide conversations with their remote workers. Find out which traditional principles still apply and which new policies will make a difference in team effectiveness—no matter how geographically dispersed team members are.
Benny Ramos is a Solution Principal for Business and Leadership at Skillsoft.