Back in the 1990s, when I worked for Anheuser-Busch, the then chairman, August Busch III, and I were in a meeting where discussion turned to working from home. In those days, “working from home” referred to any work done out of the office. Over the years, it has been called telework, at least by the federal government, and everywhere else it is known as having virtual employees.
Whatever you call it, Busch took real issue with the idea. He indicated that if an employee was at home, he or she might not be working. Little did he realize his whole field sales organization already worked virtually.
Things have changed a lot since the ‘90s.
My final position at Anheuser-Busch was as director of international human resources. The work for that job took place everywhere except the United States. I traveled at least half the time, which meant my U.S. office was vacant half the time.
In most organizations, 50 percent of overhead is employee-related. So, if each one of those people needs a work space, usually an office, what is the cost?
For several years, I was on the board of the Association of Internal Management Consultants (AIMC). Among other activities, AIMC offered a series of conference calls throughout the year to its members on common topics of interest. I was in charge of one such call in the early 2000s about managing virtual employees. Even though this was more than a decade ago, it was one of AIMC’s best-attended calls.
As I looked at the list of attendees, I noticed several people who were from our membership companies, but on the real estate side of things. For at least some organizations, moving to a virtual workforce model was of interest, since it could translate into major savings on building operation costs.
A virtual workforce can also eliminate confusion caused by inclement weather. I recall dealing with snow days as a human resources generalist. Should a person who did not report to work due to icy roads be required to take a vacation day? If the employee attempted to come to the office but got stuck in a snow drift, is that a day off? If your staff is working virtually, issues like that go away.
My consulting firm, EASI Consult, is a virtual organization. My partner and I thought the benefits of working virtually would be really attractive to potential employees, particularly younger employees. But we did not consider that might not always be the case with everyone.
For example, there was a young woman in her late 20s who stayed with us for a few of years before resigning to work for a large brick-and-mortar organization. She was single and lived alone in an apartment. She would often head to a local Starbucks to work and use its free Wi-Fi. We were fine with that, but it should have been a signal to us that she was looking for more social interaction.
My partner and I, both grizzled veterans of corporate America who had worn suits and ties to work each day, did not want to go into an office. We understood the technological needs of each employee. We knew when there was a technical problem, there had to be an immediate solution if we wanted to keep our people working. We had and still have a lot of conference calls where work gets done. In the old days, people would have gathered around a conference table.
But is working virtually the same as working in an office? What is different? Do you need to manage differently? Are you selecting people for the same skills? There can be a lot of freedom in working virtually, so you need disciplined employees who can handle that independence and enjoy a solitary workspace.
As the boss, do you care whether your employees put in their eight hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or noon to 8 p.m.? In some instances, this is an issue and in other cases, it is not. Most organizations come to realize the need to establish certain core hours everyone must work. This allows meetings to be scheduled during a common time.
Managers need to adjust their management styles. They must be clear about what results they expect from employees and when they need to see them. A manager of a virtual workplace can’t just pop into an employee’s office. The manager might need to determine how an employee will keep the boss informed of his or her progress, and that employee should also communicate his or her needs. Both manager and employee should keep their calendars updated.
Communication becomes a bigger challenge in a virtual organization. Self-starters and people who like to work independently do better in that environment, but some workplace scenarios, like “water cooler” conversations or going out for a beer, cannot be duplicated virtually.
As an organization, you may need to figure out ways to replicate those social situations, or make sure in your hiring process you are selecting employees who are comfortable working alone.
EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email [email protected] or call 800.922.EASI.
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