There’s an obvious appeal that comes to mind when you first think about telecommuting. Many global companies — including Aperian — allow employees to telecommute. The benefits of a remote workforce stem from allowing employees to spend more time in their comfort zones, but does it always lead to increased productivity? Most recent studies point to “yes,” but there are many considerations to make when deciding if telecommuting is right for you or your company.
Estimates claim that about 2.8% of the global workforce works from home at least half of the time. Although this number seems low at first glance, consider the fact that the number of people who work from home has increased 103% since 2005. There’s no denying that there is an upward trend of work-from-home flexibility in society today — and this trend does indeed come with many benefits, such as the following:
- Financial savings. Many cost savings come with managing a remote workforce, such as lower occupancy fees, utilities and office supplies. According to a Stanford study, a company can save about $2,000 per year per employee who works from home.
- Increased productivity. Virtual collaboration tools allow remote employees to collaborate as if they’re in the same conference room. Employees can use forms of virtual communication in the workplace, such as video conferencing, as well as email, instant messages, and the telephone. Workers are more likely to work in excess of 40 hours a week if they’re working from home, and they also take fewer sick days. Employees working together across various time zones are more likely to achieve success if they’re able to collaborate from home. Business hours increase with more flexibility. Furthermore, business will continue as usual regardless of weather conditions that could limit productivity due to hazardous driving conditions.
- Better recruitment opportunities. You can select from the top-qualified candidates around the globe for a position if you’re open to managing a remote workforce. Instead of limiting your recruiting opportunities to those who are willing to relocate and those able to make the daily commute, you can focus on hiring the best-qualified candidates without worrying about any geographic restrictions.
- Higher retention rates. Remote workers report higher job satisfaction rates and a better work-life balance. Fewer employees who work from home quit, and they also tend to eat healthier and have lower stress levels.
Why Don’t All Companies Offer Telecommuting Policies?
It’s clear there are many advantages of telecommuting, so why do some companies allow employees to work from home, but others don’t? The majority of managers trust their employees, but one-third say they feel more confident knowing they can collaborate with and oversee their employees while they’re working.
Back in 2013, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer ended all work-from-home policies at the multinational technology company. Mayer claimed the decision was based on her desire to improve the company culture and bring employees back to working side-by-side in an effort to communicate and collaborate more effectively.
Mayer’s decision received much backlash from the media and people supporting telecommuting, but others agreed that working from home could diminish the innovation that often comes with casual conversations and collaboration around the office.
The conversation is twofold: Employees who work from home help companies reduce overhead costs, experience greater satisfaction in their jobs, and they’re more productive, but companies ultimately have the discretion to not offer work from home policies — or revoke them — if company leaders believe that managing a virtual workplace decreases speed or hinders collaboration.
Companies thinking of adopting a work-from-home policy should consider the following four metrics to determine if it would be beneficial:
- Real estate cost per employee. If employers allow workers to telecommute, they’re reducing the cost of real estate per employee (workspace). Determine if the cost savings of real estate per employee would help your bottom line. If so, this metric could be one of the advantages of working from home.
- Employee productivity. To quickly determine if remote or in-house workers are more productive, divide each group’s revenue by the number of employees. If the remote employees are more productive, it’s worth considering a policy that would allow more employees to work remotely.
- Level of interaction and communication. Analytics make it easy to determine which employees are interacting and communicating. Managers can track whether or not remote workers are engaging, and use that information to determine whether remote work is right for their company. Besides time tracking software to monitor employees’ time spent working, managers can use project management software to ask for updates and view communication between team members. Intelligent software offers employers a way to digitally monitor employees’ behavior and discover patterns about their progress, or lack thereof. For example, sociometric analysis measures how social relationships affect productivity.
- Employee engagement and motivation. Consider giving remote and office workers surveys to see who is more engaged and motivated overall. Ask questions about how they feel coming to work every day, find out whether they’re inspired at work and ask if they think their role within the company is important. Ask specific questions about whether or not they feel included in group decisions and ask if they feel as though their needs and concerns are considered and addressed.
There are pros and cons of working from home. Every organization is unique — what may work for one may not work for another — but society is advancing in a way that’s leading to more virtual teams and opportunities to work remotely. Once a company decides to implement work from home policies, it’s wise to consider the possible roadblocks to success.
The Challenges of Working from Home
Remote workers must possess self-discipline, as well as the drive to stay motivated to complete their daily tasks. If they don’t possess these qualities, or they struggle with their daily work responsibilities while working from home, negative consequences can begin to surface.
Some of the challenges and obstacles virtual workers face include the following:
- Isolation. When you work from home, it’s likely that you’ll experience less contact with other professionals in your field — especially for, but not limited to, individual contributor roles. You won’t have a daily commute, so you won’t encounter other people on your way to and from the office. You won’t bump into other workers at the water cooler for a casual conversation, or have lunch with your coworkers a few days a week. With fewer encounters with other people — and other professionals in your field — it’s easy to feel isolated, which can lead to a slump in progress or even depression.
- Trouble separating work from home. When you work from home, it’s easy to become distracted by your children, neighbors, friends, or home responsibilities. Because you’re home, you’ll be more aware of things that need to be done around the house. In addition, those who work from home often have a hard time transitioning from work life to home life. With constant access to their work while at home, it can be hard to stop working for the day, especially when there’s a lot to accomplish.
- Alienation from company. Even if remote workers avoid isolating themselves from other people, they may feel isolated from their company itself. They may find themselves unaware of recent company changes, or feel as though they are the last to hear company news because they aren’t physically present in the office. Some remote workers feel as though they’re overlooked for promotions because they aren’t in the office every day.
Luckily, challenges bring with them opportunities. Company leaders managing remote employees can take action to circumvent the possible negative effects of remote work. They can require remote workers to check in with another employee or manager every day, simply to engage in a friendly conversation, and enjoy some personal facetime to break up the workday, as would be normal in an office setting.
Understanding how to manage virtual teams is crucial to the success of employees working from home. Beyond this, it’s critical that employers offer technology that supports a successful work from home environment, such as:
- A collaboration and community platform. Virtual workers need a virtual office — a place where they can meet online and hold conversations. It’s easy for virtual workers to become isolated, so a central hub to communicate with colleagues is a benefit. Skype, Slap, HipChat, and Pie are all popular choices. The best collaboration and community platforms connect employees, give them a place to chat and discuss projects, leave feedback and suggestions, and more.
- A time zone converter. Teams that include members from different time zones often struggle with finding the best times to collaborate. A time zone converter can assist virtual workers in planning the best times for meetings, and it can remind employees to remain conscientious of the time in their teammates’ zones. Every Time Zone is a web-based, aesthetically pleasing app that converts time zone differences in a simple, easy-to-comprehend format.
- A file-sharing service. Virtual teams need a place to share files. A file-sharing service will allow employees to store, access and share files in a secure location. Dropbox is one major platform for file sharing, but there are plenty of other popular services available, such as Google Drive and OneDrive. If you have highly regulated IT guidelines, it may be worthwhile to invest in your own IT-approved system.
- An audio/video chat app. Successful virtual teams meet for face-to-face meetings using videoconferencing. It brings employees together and builds a rapport among coworkers. Google Hangouts works well with a strong internet connection. Other options include Skype, Sqwiggle and Appear.in.
- Virtual meeting software. Virtual meeting software allows users to conduct a meeting online to collaborate on a project, train employees or present webinars. Virtual meeting software is a better option than video chat software when multiple employees need to participate. Consider Adobe Connect or WebEx.
- An automation service. Most jobs include at least a small amount of repetitive tasks that don’t require your personal input, such as transferring information from an email to a calendar or copying and pasting information onto a spreadsheet. For such tasks that use a lot of time and hinder overall productivity, consider an automation service. When simple tasks are automated, more time becomes available for tasks that do require your personal input. IFTTT and Zapier are examples of excellent automation services.
- A project management system. Every company has a unique workflow that will benefit from the right project management system. An excellent project management system will keep tasks organized and progress monitored. Popular choices are Basecamp, Zoho, Wrike, Trello, Asana, Quip and Podio.
- A decision-making tool. Sometimes teams struggle to come to a decision, and this is especially true in the virtual setting. A helpful decision-making tool can alleviate the stress that comes with making difficult decisions, because it will allow team members to easily vote, tally the results, and present everyone with the final outcome. Loomio and Tricider are helpful decision-making tools that allow members to vote and quickly understand the likely outcome.
Company leaders who believe that telecommuting takes away from productive, face-to-face conversations should consider that virtual collaboration creates more unified communications and higher employee engagement when used properly.
In short, if you use the right tools, you can enjoy the best of both worlds: Your employees can interact with one another as if they’re in the same room, and they can experience all of the benefits that come with working from home. It’s possible to reap the benefits of personal interaction, successful collaboration, and a productive work from home environment. This is possible with the right tools and knowledge for virtual collaboration.
The Benefits of Virtual Collaboration
Virtual collaboration helps address employees with diverse working styles, and it’s been proven that the best teams leverage diversity to achieve long-term success. In general, there are four types of employees:
- Detail-driven — Individuals who are highly organized and are excellent planners
- Idea-driven — Individuals who are skilled at strategizing and integrating concepts and ideas
- Emotionally driven — Individuals who are highly compassionate and communicative
- Data-driven — Individuals who are rational and analytical
Of course, employees can encompass a few — or all! — of the above ways of working. Most people, in fact, process information and approach tasks in more than one way, but the idea is that the best workplace teams include diverse workers and thinkers.
Virtual collaboration offers a profound way to cater to employees with diverse working styles. For example, detailed-driven workers tend to excel in virtual environments. They typically have no trouble planning their workday and accomplishing daily tasks. Emotionally driven individuals may prefer to speak directly over the phone or face-to-face in a video conference, because they typically read social cues very well and prefer verbal communication. Idea-driven workers thrive when facilitating change and usually prefer a lead role in brainstorming solutions, so you should consider giving them more responsibility when strategizing in the virtual setting. Data-driven workers are highly adept at solving complex problems. They don’t typically need an extra push to stay on topic or on budget, but they may prefer to work alone quietly rather than lead a virtual group discussion.
Managing remote teams can be complicated, but as long as leaders understand their employees, offer appropriate tools for remote success, and cater to their working styles, they’re likely to experience positive results.
Managing Remote Teams Best Practices
Successful remote team management blends trust, communication, consistency, and an understanding of the possible challenges that might arise. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Make building trust a priority. Trust is the foundation of a successful team, but trust is usually built over time. When working in a virtual team, there isn’t always time to build a rapport with team members. You might be part of a group and have no idea about the other people’s work ethics or anything about their personal lives. It’s important to promote team bonding in order to build trust. You can approach this in a few ways, such as setting aside time for small talk before or after meetings, and allowing participants to share photographs and information about their personal lives. Virtual events such as a baby shower, birthday, or job anniversary celebration make for great informal activities to promote trust and teamwork. Consistency in updates and reports also helps to build trust with and among remote employees.
- Establish an onboarding process. Be sure that every employee who collaborates virtually has the same onboarding experience. They should be given access to the same communication systems and handbooks that explain the company processes. Everyone should be given the same advice and tools for success as they’re brought on board. If possible, it can even be very valuable to have an initial onboarding done face-to-face in an office location.
- Collaborate about team expectations and goals. Be sure that expectations and goals are clearly stated for virtual meetings. If working in a team, allow everyone to work together to create the team’s expectations and goals. This will set the standard for what’s expected from everyone, and allow everyone to agree on meeting protocols, such as how to resolve conflict and make group decisions.
- Increase cross-cultural awareness. People involved in global teams should know and understand the challenges that come with communicating across cultures. For example, an American multinational oil and gas corporation wanted to ensure their non-Iraqi employees were equipped with the cultural knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the Iraqi context. Aperian worked with corporation leaders and local Iraqis to design a workshop for multinational employees assigned to Iraq, and it was offered in the US and the Middle East. A pre-departure workshop was also created for employees traveling to Iraq. It addressed issues such as safety, security, and health, as well as business and cultural topics. The workshops gave leaders and employees the information, skills and confidence needed to successfully collaborate and conduct business across cultural boundaries.
- Use varied channels of communication. There are many ways to communicate virtually. Lean methods include emails, chat messages, and texting. If you have a simple message to share, a lean method of communication is usually fine. If you have something deeper or more complicated to share, it’s better to opt for a richer method of communication, such as video conference or telephone call. These methods add more contextual information like facial expressions and body language, which can be very telling in a conversation.
- Don’t completely neglect face-to-face meetings. If it’s possible, organize a face-to-face encounter for the first meeting. It’s possible to be successful without ever meeting in person, but there isn’t a replacement for face-to-face contact in person. Meeting physically allows people to share a deeper personal connection. Eye contact, proximity, voice, and body language allow people to connect more closely than they would if they met virtually. If meeting in person for the first time isn’t possible, consider holding an annual gathering or other event to keep employees in touch.
Even with the right tools and adequate planning, virtual teams in the workplace can pose unique challenges for global companies of all sizes. An experienced talent development firm can help companies navigate the trials that come with virtual collaboration across cultural boundaries. Choose to work with a firm with a validated inventory in the market and a proven record for success.
Learn More About Virtual Collaboration
Aperian works to help individuals, teams and organizations to work productively and efficiently across boundaries. We offer facilitated programs specifically for global teams and virtual collaboration, including:
- Leading Across Distance: This program is designed to provide leaders with the tools they need to propel results from their virtual teams. The program is broken up into three sessions: distance leadership, leading across cultural differences and engaging virtual meetings. You will learn what you need to know about the most important aspects of distance leadership, how to effectively communicate in the virtual setting, how to leverage diversity and cultural differences, and more.
- Working Effectively with Country X: This program is specifically designed for professionals of any level who want to learn to effectively and productively work with individuals in a specific country. Learning modules focus on building trusting relationships, creating strategies to bridge cultural gaps, effective communication across cultural boundaries, and successful collaboration.
- Virtual Collaboration: This half-day program focuses on providing members of virtual teams with the knowledge they need for success. Key competencies, appropriate assessments, and best practices for effective collaboration will be covered, as well as information on building the best strategies for your unique team.
- GlobeSmart® Profile Debrief: We offer Aperian®, the industry’s leading online cultural intelligence resource for improved cross-cultural understanding. This program will help business professionals leverage the Aperian online learning tool and use cultural intelligence to work globally. Learning objectives include gaining knowledge into common behaviors influenced by culture, learning to overcome cultural gaps, and more. The GlobeSmart Profile is an online cultural inventory that allows users to learn about their own unique working styles, while also providing them with advice about working successfully with colleagues and people from other cultures. The profile is available in 13 languages.
The right teaming solution can mean the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Over the last several years, we’ve experienced a 350% increase in requests for virtual training programs — a testament to the need for top-notch virtual teams that drive organizations forward.