HOW TO: Manage a Virtual Workforce

by Sharlyn Lauby on March 19, 2013

(Editor’s Note: Today’s post is sponsored by our good friends at SilkRoad, a leading global provider of cloud-based social talent management software. SilkRoad was recently recognized with two Stevie Awards for Sales and Customer Service excellence. Congrats to them for the very deserving wins! I hope you enjoy the post.)

telework, flexible work, virtual work, SilkRoad, State of Talent Management, manage, HR

If you haven’t checked out SilkRoad’s 2013 State of Talent Management Report, it’s a must read. It outlines 20 human resources trends impacting today’s workplace. You can download a copy here. One trend particularly stood out – virtual work.  From the report:

Managing virtual workforces outside the company four walls is the “new normal.” Disruptive technologies and tools, such as personal mobile devices, tablet computing, and social media give the workforce access to a wealth of information beyond the 9 to 5 day. HR professionals must prepare and retrain themselves, so that they can work in multi-disciplinary teams to develop a cohesive strategy for new technology.

Despite recent conversation about virtual work, telework, flexible work (whatever term we want to call it), there is a telework, flexible work, virtual work, SilkRoad, State of Talent Management, manage, reportdirect benefit to having a virtual workforce. For the business, it includes having a smaller office footprint, increased worker productivity and satisfaction. In last year’s Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, 85 of them offered some kind of telecommuting option. On the employee side, there’s the benefit of spending less time on travel and allows greater scheduling flexibility in terms of childcare and work-balance. It’s a win-win proposition. On one condition:

Companies must plan and prepare for having a virtual workforce. It’s not as simple as writing a memo that says, “Everyone can work from home. Have fun.”

To properly implement a virtual working arrangement, here are 5 items to consider.

  1. Decide why the company is implementing a virtual strategy. The company needs to know their goal and share the goal with employees who will be working virtually. If at any time the goal isn’t being met, there needs to be a discussion.
  2. Determine the criteria for deciding what positions can be considered for virtual work. Admittedly, not every job is a candidate for virtual work. If you allow an employee to work virtually when the position isn’t designed for it, the employee is set up for failure.
  3. Consult with the technology team to define the guidelines for equipment use. Lots of considerations here – company equipment versus employee equipment, access to company documents, confidentiality and security. Employees need to have specific guidelines in place to protect company data.
  4. Draft a ‘telework’ agreement that clearly spells out expectations for the company and the employee. This agreement should include (at minimum): proposed work schedule, outline of work responsibilities, equipment and resources set-up. It should also have a start and stop date which can be renewed if expectations are being met.
  5. Train managers on the best way to manage employees they can’t see every day. Managers have to transition from a “watching employees work” mode to a “holding employees accountable for results” mentality. They have to figure out how to communicate, recognize and engage employees in new ways.

If you’re looking for some creative inspiration to develop a telework policy, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has a Guide to Telework in the Federal Government. And here’s a study produced by the U.S. Government titled “Implementing Telework: Lessons Learned from Four Federal Agencies”. I realize not everyone is in the public sector but it provides good detailed information that can help anyone work their way through the right questions to ask during their own exploration of telework.

SilkRoad’s analysis is spot on. Virtual work is the new normal. According to the Telework Research Network, regular telecommuting has grown 73% over the past five years. It’s not going away. But like anything we do for the benefit of the business, we must plan, prepare, inform and monitor.

The payoff of a well-managed telework program is huge in terms of employee engagement. SilkRoad’s research found that flexible work ranked as one of the top 5 mechanisms fostering employee engagement. And we all know that engagement drives productivity and profits in our companies.

I hope you’ll download SilkRoad’s 2013 State of Talent Management Report. I found it very interesting and I’m sure you will too. You can learn more by visiting their website, reading their blog or following them on Twitter.

Oh and P.S. SilkRoad is offering a free webinar on “How to Use Employee Opinion Surveys to Drive Engagement” this Thursday, March 21 at 11a PT/1p CT/2p ET. Yours truly is the speaker. I hope you can join us. Registration info can be found here.

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Jennifer Michelle March 19, 2013 at 9:21 am

Another plus of a virtual workforce is that it can be easier for employee’s to go for a walk and (depending on how they stock their fridge) have a healthy lunch. That can help keep people energized and productive!

Caroline A. March 19, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Hi Sharlyn,

Thank you for the informative post! The trends listed in the 2013 State of Talent Management report were quite interesting – I can’t wait to finish reading this. I have marked the webinar schedule on my calendar and will do my best to tune in this Thursday. Thanks again and take care!

Caroline A. recently posted..Strategic Human Resources Planning

Jonathan March 20, 2013 at 10:26 am

A virtual workforce is definitely the hot topic right now. When I worked at a big accounting firm, the big push was for increased flexibility in when and where we worked. A dream come true for employees! But a nightmare for managers who weren’t ready to delegate from a distance.

Our company is putting on a free webinar next Wednesday on how to build a remote team in case anybody is interested –
Jonathan recently posted..What Enables Your Business to Survive Today Might Kill it Tomorrow

Marissa@Equibbly March 21, 2013 at 9:23 am

I believe that flex time is the best that you can give to motivate your team to be at their most productive. It’s the easiest to provide with a lot to gain. Thanks for sharing this report!
Marissa@Equibbly recently posted..eQuibbly’s Information Brochure

Remote Nation March 21, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Hey Sharlyn,

I particularly liked this point:

“Train managers on the best way to manage employees they can’t see every day. Managers have to transition from a “watching employees work” mode to a “holding employees accountable for results” mentality. They have to figure out how to communicate, recognize and engage employees in new ways.”

It is very true in my experience. I would argue that this is something the manager should be doing in the office as opposed to the ‘drive-by’ approach. Set clear expectations and check-in, if the employee is serious about keeping this arrangement then they’ll keep their eye on the ball.
Remote Nation recently posted..Remote Community

Sharlyn Lauby March 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for the comments everyone!

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