Managing a virtual workforce
A growing number of companies are allowing employees to work from home. It’s a practice that isn’t right for everyone. Here are some points to consider when establishing a virtual worker program.
By Bill Grodnick
With rising office overhead, and employees increasingly wanting flex-ibility in their jobs, a growing number of companies are going at least partially virtual.
While your business may have the technical capability to allow telecommuting — the ability for employees to work from home — a company also needs the structural and managerial capability to make sure the arrangement is a success.
Too often, however, companies have allowed or encouraged telecommuting without even considering several important questions that this practice raises. These include:
How does having so-called virtual employees change the nature of your business?
Who makes a good candidate for telecommuting?
How do you supervise such workers?
What other adjustments must you make if your business is to work most efficiently?
My company helps customers set up virtual offices that allow workers and employers to establish such programs. We’ve done it thousands of times, and it is also something I’ve experienced myself, as I went through the process with my own business.
Based on lessons I have learned, here are some important things for a business to consider if they’re implementing a virtual job program:
IT BEGINS AT THE BEGINNING
A manager should be especially careful when hiring workers they know will be working remotely. Candidates should be self-motivators who can handle the increased responsibility.
It helps, of course, if they have some experience telecommuting or come from a job — sales, for example — that requires initiative and organization. No matter what their previous experience, be frank with prospective hires about your specific expectations and ask them directly if they are completely comfortable meeting them.
Find out up front if there are limitations to the time your prospective hire can spend at their desk. Be clear with the candidate about such things as expected response time to an e-mail or phone messages. Be disciplined on your end to encourage the same from them.
Whenever possible, be proactive about working up a system that allows them to be independent. For example, create forms for reports and other necessary paperwork that is especially tailored to their needs, and is available on your network whenever they need it.
If the candidate has worked in an office environment, be sure they understand that the expectations for them will be the same when they work from home. Some firms even tests employees to determine if they will make a good candidate for telecommuting.
BE IT, EVER-SO-HUMBLE?
Before finalizing a contract with a virtual worker, review the technological capabilities of their home office. Be clear about space and technology expectations and requirements.
While the costs of upgrading a home office to company-specific standards are usually borne by employers, there are several ways to keep these costs down. Determine if an employee’s existing equipment is usable based on their specific needs before automatically replacing it.
Companies can often save money by outsourcing their telecommuting set-ups for a small monthly fee; this also helps overtaxed IT departments, since any technological problems can be handled by the outside company. And speaking of “taxing,” telecommuting expenses are tax deductible for (employer as well as employee) under certain situations.
MAKE EVERYONE PART OF THE TEAM
A sense of camaraderie can obviously be difficult to maintain when workers are in different locations. Email and Instant Messenger are important communication tools, but they certainly don’t substitute for face-to-face interaction.
Make sure to include work-at-home employees in career training and long term planning. Solicit their input in creative decisions. Most importantly, communicate often.
Have remote employees participate in regular staff meetings by telephone conference call. And send frequent email updates to all parties involved in a project, so everyone remains in the loop.
Meet in-person with telecommuting employees at least every six months in the first year of employment. Encourage them to come and speak with others who they might not be in direct contact wit, but who are familiar with the business.
A NEW ROLE FOR MANAGERS
Managers who are new to supervising telecommuting employees may have a tendency to micromanage. It can be due to a sense of lost control. Remote employees, in turn, can misunderstand this as a lack of confidence in their performance.
With little face time to resolve misunderstandings or to address questions from either side, such issues can quickly cause tension in a company.
Those in charge need to make sure all employees are delivering on their responsibilities and meeting deadlines in a way that makes sense to employees who don’t get a chance to know them well in person. Managers have to become comfortable managing by end results, rather than by face-to-face interaction.
By considering these simple guidelines, while remaining sensitive to the unique nature of the relationship, you can ensure that your virtual employees have every opportunity to thrive and grow.
Bill Grodnik is president of Davinci Virtual (www.davincivirtual.com) a Salt Lake City, Utah based company that assists businesses in establishing and assessing virtual worker programs.