Managing a virtual workforce

Managing remote and virtual workers is going to become a key competency for managers. But with no one teaching this vital skill, it is something managers and co-workers may have to pick up on their own.

As companies become leaner, the virtual worker will become more prevalent, and some will be providing their services either from home or from a separate office location.

There is a lot to be said about remote working. You can wear whatever you want and you don’t have to put up with the tiresome shenanigans of office politics. The downside is that it can leave you out of the loop and it’s harder to communicate with your boss, if you can ever get hold of them. (If you have ever had to work outside the office, or spent time telecommuting, you know what that means.)

Nevertheless, remote working will become more mainstream and office hours will become less relevant. Part of it is economics. Companies want to run as efficiently as possible and a remote workforce allows them to keep a lid on labour costs and real estate.

The other reason why it’s likely to be seen more often is because of greater access to technology. As reported here, 8 per cent of Australians now own a tablet and smart phone penetration is at 35 per cent. That makes remote working a lot easier.

As Daniel Etherington writes in Gigacom, companies and managers need to start preparing for the post-PC world. “If you stay stuck in a PC mode when the rest of the world moves into a post-PC phase, you not only run the risk of losing touch with employees, but also with customers and the rest of the marketplace. If you start getting ready now, and keep in mind that a change in attitude can precede any change in deployed hardware, you should be able to keep pace with or anticipate the post-PC curve.”

That’s all well and good but what about the downside of remote working. While there is a lot to be said about not seeing your boss or colleagues every day, there are communication problems. And not everyone is suited for this sort of working style. As I say in my blog entry here, it only suits people who are self motivated and who can work around distractions, even go for hours without talking to anyone. If you can’t do that, you are better off in the office.

So what are the best ways to deal with remote worker issues? USA Today columnist Anita Bruzzese says bosses should use instant messaging to stay in touch and schedule a daily phone conversation, picking up the warning signs when the remote worker is missing deadline and making sure they mention things like birthdays, anniversaries and awards in newsletters and the intranet.

She says remote workers should keep regular hours so that the boss knows when they will be available, keeping the boss in the loop about what they’re doing, and constantly keeping up to date with training to keep their skills fresh. It would also be a good idea to just keep in touch with people at the workplace, getting together with them for a coffee.

Management writer James Adonis suggests companies use social networking sites to keep in touch, have more videoconferences so that employees can see each other, conduct more off site get togethers, perhaps once or twice a year, and ask the remote worker to come in for a day every quarter so they can interact with staff.

Intel Australia managing director Philip Cronin says it's an issue for managers because they have to focus on outcomes and results, rather than the process. It doesn’t matter how they do it, as long as they get it done - and that can be a challenge for some. “Because you don't have the same degree of involvement in how the work is done, you need to be comfortable operating with more ambiguity – in how you set goals, in how you measure things and so on. This in turn will challenge some managers, particularly in a company where people are very measurement-focused. Some might not make the step to the new environment.”

What are the traits you need to be a remote worker? How should managers interact with their virtual workforce?