Virtual, remote, or teleworking – where work travels to the worker – is increasingly replacing the nine-to-five office-based working day as communications technology and new flexible working legislation kicks in. Based at home or at another decentralised location (a telecottage), the virtual worker maintains contact via the internet, e-mail or other digital network.
Why is it important?
Many of us have already worked virtually, even if only spending the odd day at home to finish a report. But the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) reckons that by next year, 30 million people in the US and a similar number in the EU will be working virtually at least one day a week.
There is also a strong business case. Studies show that remote workers can be up to 25 per cent more productive than office-based staff; office overheads are reduced, and employee motivation is increased as a result of the greater freedom and control over their working day. New flexible working legislation also means it is less likely to be seen as the career inhibitor it once was.
Where do I start?
If you are staying with your organisation, then employment contracts need to be altered and a telework policy drawn up. A formalised policy protects both sides; at the least, it should stipulate when you can work from home, your hours and communication procedures. You also need to know what equipment will be provided, such as a PC or laptop, printer, internet connections, chair, desk and storage facilities, as well as the level of technical support you will receive. If something goes wrong, where do you sit on the priority list for repair call-outs?
It is also your employer’s duty to provide a safe working environment, which will require an assessment of your home office for likely accident or hazard points. Also, there are mental and attitude considerations: is working alone, without the benefits of interaction in an office environment, right for you?
Despite the many benefits of virtual working, it is open to abuse, so it is essential to establish a way of quantifying the work that has been done. Time-based methods, such as timesheets, should be dispensed with in favour of performance-based outcomes, meeting objectives agreed with your manager.
The loneliness of the long-distance employee
Virtual working can be an isolating affair, and as such it poses new challenges for managers to keep employees motivated and in touch.
They should be sending out daily e-mail updates and setting up regular face-to-face meetings. Use the e-mail circulars to share both individual and team virtual-working success stories. From a personal perspective, use your network to keep in the loop, and when in the office, use the opportunity to meet up with friends for coffee or lunch.
What if I am striking out on my own?
From a technical standpoint, the thing you are most likely to miss is fast and free internet access. Find out whether you have broadband availability in your area (go to www.bt.com or www.blueyonder.co.uk and key in your postcode).
While it is possible to conduct business with a standard 56k modem and phone line, broadband will offer far more flexibility. File transfers will be quicker, and the separate line means you won’t have to worry about missed calls. It also makes it easier to organise bills.
Internet-ready laptops can cost less than £1,000 and may be all you need, especially when bundled with software such as Microsoft Office. If you are uncertain about specifying your own equipment, use a reliable high street IT specialist. Once online, a lot of software can be down-loaded for free, such as Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) viewer – essential for viewing reports and papers.
Make provision for the back-up of files and have some sort of technical support mechanism in place for when something goes wrong, but beware of expensive warranty deals. If you’re not technically minded, consider a training course to improve your skills.
(For the fuller business considerations, see How to… become a portfolio worker – see below).
Become a virtual working exponent
Unless your entire organisation buys into the concept, it will probably fail, so it is essential that senior managers plug into the culture and every so often work virtually too. If it works for you, then you’re the best possible advert for the concept, and should encourage take-up.
Where can I get more info?
Flexible and Virtual Working,Steve Shipside, Capstone Publishing, £9.99, ISBN 1841122009
How to become a portfolio worker, www.personneltoday.com/goto/18649
The Telework Association (Formerly the Telecottage Association), Europe’s largest organisation dedicated to promoting teleworking
An ‘everything you want to know’ BT site which also offers a guide to implementing teleworking in organisations
National Association of Teleworking
A web-based community fore-lancers (electronic, home and mobile workers).
If you only do five things…
1 Stay professional by maintaining the formal relationships that surround your role
2 Plan your day the night before
3 Remind your self of personal objectives to maintain productivity
4 Use your network to keep in the loop
5 Extol the benefits at every opportunity
Expert’s view: Jes Smith on working remotely
Jes Smith is programme director at people development company TMI and Take90, a provider of bite-size in-company training.
How feasible is it for HR to work remotely?
In large multinationals, HR functions have been working remotely for some time. Organisations have reduced the HR headcount as they have decentralised the HR function.
The structure that remains relies on the ‘flying doctor’ approach to performance management, policy and practice. The secret of success of virtual HR is overcoming the barriers that working remotely present, and alleviating the stress on the organisational structure.
What are the biggest challenges for HR professionals working remotely?
Miscommunication is probably the biggest obstacle to organisational effectiveness. A set of defined communication protocols should be established. Also, the stronger the departmental structure and internal processes, the more likely consistency will be achieved. A successful remote team will have a clear purpose and goals within the organisation. Finally, being able to motivate individuals remotely requires a wider skillset. Routine tasks take on a new emphasis as managers learn to develop new processes to gauge team effectiveness.
How can I ensure my organisation doesn’t forget me?
Being remote should not affect your engagement with the organisation. The key role for the manager of the remote worker has to be technical and inter-personal. Create a personal network diagram with you at the centre, an inner ring of people with a high interdependency, and an outer ring of collaborative teams. This will help maintain focus, ensuring you all know what the other is doing.