The days where all employees work in one building with desks, cubes, offices right next to each other from 9 to 5 are gone. The advancement in computer technology has enabled everyone to be a virtual employee of some sort and the trends show that an increasing number of us are taking advantage of this ability.
The definition of a virtual employees has evolved over the years. It used to be a select few that didn’t work in the office with all of the other employees. The work they performed could be completed remotely, at their home for example, and their hours could be set differently to fit their personal situation. Then it expanded to include the off-shore and on-shore workforce where certain specialties could be centralized for a lower cost apart from the office. Today it is common place to have a percentage of the workforce completely virtual and in most cases the entire workforce partially virtual.
Why did this shift to virtual happen? According to Global Workplace Analytics there are some compelling real-life examples of the benefits of virtual employees:
Costs. Forty percent of the IBM workforce operates without a dedicated ofﬁce space. The employee to desk ratio is currently 4:1, with plans to increase it to 8:1 in ﬁeld locations. IBM saves $450 million a year in reduced facility infrastructure and associated initiatives through telework.
Productivity. Ecolab, a Fortune 500 sanitation and food safety company, reported a 16% increase in the number of calls answered and a 10% increase in quick call resolution among its teleworkers
Absenteeism. British Telecom realized a 64% reduction in absenteeism due to its ﬂexible work program
Lifestyle. More than a third of college student in the US (37%) say they would take a lower salary (up to $10,000 less) for the option to work wherever they are most productive and happiest. When the same question was put to existing employees, the percentage who would take a lower salary was 38%.
Employee engagement. According to a 2013 Gallup study, 39% of employees are virtual for some part of their work. Those that are remote for 20% or less are the most engaged (35%) compared to those that are not remote (28%).
What is the secret to leading virtual employees? The needs of a virtual employee are no different than those that work in an office. Today’s leader needs to focus on the same leadership areas – Clarity, Communication, and Connections - But using the technology that empowers the virtual workforce to keep virtual employees engaged – video conferencing, skype, gotometting, and some frequency of travel for the in-person connection.
Clarity. I think of clarity in very simple terms, “Get everyone on the same page, and keep them on the same page.” The importance if this simple idea can’t be stressed too much. There are two main areas where clarity is needed: Purpose and Priorities.
Purpose: If you want your virtual employees to be connected to the success of the team, they need to understand the big picture goals of the team. Make sure you are talking about the purpose of the team and the success in achieving that purpose on a regular basis.
“Any idea, plan, or purpose may be placed in the mind through repetition of thought.” - Napoleon Hill
Priorities: Knowing the purpose of the team is very important, but what drives the achievement of that purpose is the tactical actions that each member of the team executes. Everyone needs to understand the priorities for their work, for other members of the team, and how it all fits together.
“It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
Communication. Whether your employees are virtual or in the office, they are people, and people need communication. They keys to communication with your team is that it be planned and purposeful.
Planned: Communication is an important part of leadership. I have found in my career that if something is not scheduled it is not done. It is too easy for perceived fire-drills to overtake all of your time. So plan out your communication schedule. Devote time every week for one on ones; get your leadership team together every month; meet every quarter with your whole team; and complete year end reviews on time.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail” – John Wooden
Purposeful: As a leader you should never hold a meeting without a clear goal in mind of what you are trying to accomplish with that meeting. Meeting just to meet is a waste of everyone’s time. When you do this right, your team will feel the impact of the positive outcomes.
-In the one on ones your directs, be available for them. It is their time to update you on progress, ask questions, and maintain comfort that they are heading on the right track.
-In the leadership team meetings it is time for a higher level of updates across your team leaders. This is an education for your leaders so they are aware of all that is important outside of their direct responsibility. This level of knowledge helps them to see where they fit in the big picture and how what they do impacts others.
-Each quarter you should meet with your entire team through conference calls, video conferencing, or sometimes visiting in person. Here you need to re-present the strategy and give them an update on how the entire team is doing. This is time to celebrate successes.
-And finally, while you may be meeting with your directs frequently, the year-end formal review is important. Take time to talk through what went well and develop a plan for ongoing development.
“Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.” – Peter Drucker
Connections. All people need to feel connected personally to other people and professionally to a great cause. There is no better proof of this than the world-wide success of Facebook and Twitter. This is virtual connection at its finest. In business today, it is imperative that people are connected to learn from each other – the world is changing to fast not to take advantage of everyone’s expertise.
The obvious answer to fulfilling the need for connection with a virtual team is to use what has been proven to work. Set up internal blogs, wiki sites, and other forums for electronic exchange of information, conversation and mentoring. Of course the phone call now and again to just catch up works – like the coffee break conversations.
“No one lives long enough to learn everything they need to learn starting from scratch. To be successful, we absolutely, positively have to find people who have already paid the price to learn the things that we need to learn to achieve our goals.” -Brian Tracy
What is the secret to leading virtual employees? The needs of a virtual employee are no different than those that work in an office. Today’s leader needs to focus on the same leadership areas – Clarity, Communication, and Connections – But using the technology that empowers the virtual workforce to keep virtual employees engaged.