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Australians are working harder than ever before with longer hours and increasing demands on their time, and yet there are fewer people at their desks. Where is everybody?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates one in every 12 workers works more hours at home than any other single location in their main or second job. It appears as though more and more employees are taking advantage of the flexibility offered by virtual work options.

If managed appropriately, virtual work can be a win-win for both managers and employees, but it is not a one-size fits all approach. Several roadblocks keep employers from making virtual work programs a success. The top five to consider are:

1. Effective team management. Can managers effectively manage their teams wherever they are?

Manager attitudes can hinder virtual work programs. Here, it’s all about trust. In many companies, the prevailing attitude among managers is employees who aren’t in the office aren’t working. Additionally, managers are accustomed to treating employees with a one-size-fits-all mentality and do not have the skills to determine employees best suited for virtual work. Managers are the foot soldiers in making virtual work a success.

Providing them with training and tools to manage effectively is crucial, yet only a small percentage of employers provide formal training on how to approach, evaluate, and manage virtual work arrangements.

2. Formal guidelines. Does the company have formal guidelines in place to help managers/employees evaluate the selection process or is it offered on an ad hoc basis?

In many organisations, virtual work is offered on more of an accidental than deliberate basis. Formal guidelines for developing and evaluating a virtual work arrangement are often non-existent. Instead, they are offered at the manager’s discretion and created for an employee’s individual circumstances.

Creating virtual-work guidelines offers a consistent approach across the organisation and provides managers with criteria for evaluating individuals and their performance.

3. High performance in a virtual world. Has the organisation assessed which roles/employees are able to deliver high performance in a virtual environment?

Not every role lends itself to a virtual work arrangement, and not every employee can perform well in a virtual environment. High performing employees tend to perform even better when working virtually, while virtual work rarely improves the work of a poor performer. Without collaboration tools, many organisational roles could not be performed effectively in a virtual arrangement. Guidelines for managers to follow in selecting the right jobs and the right employees for virtual work are critical.

4. Driving collaboration and innovation. How does our organisation drive collaboration and innovation and what tools do we have to encourage collaboration for those working virtually?

One of the downsides of telecommuting is that virtual employees often feel isolated. Do virtual employees have adequate opportunity to collaborate? Consider what tools might encourage better teamwork both in and out of the office. Collaboration tools are improving and can keep employees connected across virtual and in-office environments in real time.

5. Impact on retention. How could employee engagement and retention be impacted by a discontinuation of virtual work?

The ability to work from home is a key engagement and retention factor for most employees who have these arrangements, and a change in policy would be a major disruption to them. Indeed, some high-performing employees may see this discontinuation as a breakdown in trust, and turnover could increase they look for opportunities elsewhere. These top performers may be part of key groups that organisations are actively trying to include (e.g., women and younger workers). In fact, ending telecommuting options entirely goes against workplace trends and preferences among workers. Once again, virtual work is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Virtual work: win-win

Virtual work can be a win-win scenario for employees and employers. For employees, the work-life paradigm has shifted. Increasing demands in our lives and advances in technology mean there is no longer a solid line dividing work and life. Blending—not balancing—makes it all work. Most virtual employees are grateful for the blurred line and respond with higher productivity, engagement, and commitment to their work. From the employer’s point of view, virtual work is largely about talent management. Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse, with abundant gender, ethnic, and generational diversity. Increasing global competition is driving the need for availability 24/7, and employers need to keep their eye on retaining high performers.

The benefits: blending not balancing

The benefits of virtual work can be significant, including higher engagement and retention, ability to recruit from a more diverse talent pool, and reduced office space.

Virtual work extends what is possible in a workday by allowing employees to stay connected from anywhere and at any time. It’s about measuring results, not hours or face time, and it’s about recognising diversity – in lifestyles, work styles, and priorities.

About the Author

Carol Sladek is the Partner, Work-Life Consulting Lead at Aon Hewitt.

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