Going virtual: managing in the work-at-home era

Posted on Written by Mary Elston
Mary Elston

Fingers fleeting across keyboards, phones ringing, copy machines humming, bits of conversation drifting in from hallways — all spiked with occasional laughter.

Ten years ago that could have been the office in which you work. Not anymore. The sound of work has changed. For many, remote or virtual work has found its footing and will continue to grow, making the office of today quieter. Not “shhh” quiet, but “people-working-elsewhere” quiet.

Have we found a way to reduce or even erase the need for face-to-face interaction? How did this happen, and how do you determine whether virtual work is a viable option for your boating or marine business? If you do adopt a program that allows selected employees to labor remotely, how do you manage and maximize their productivity?

Many managers have successfully addressed these questions and have been delighted with the results; others are finding the formula doesn’t fit. Let’s talk through each of these considerations.

How virtual workers escaped from the office can be summed up in a word: technology. Although face-to-face interactions never entirely will be erased, the birth of the remote employee occurred in the late 1990s when affordable computers and Internet access became standard in many homes.

By the early 2000s, the miracle of the Web was widely augmented with connections to corporate networks from home offices. This allowed virtual work to become a phenomenon profuse with popularity and possibilities. Add expansive use of e-mail, conference calls from any phone or computer, and video and Web-based meetings and you’ve got a communications juggernaut. File sharing and document collaboration, as well as virtual signatures, are now mainstream.

Want to pump up the program even more? Consider a reduced need for office real estate and the savings yielded by fewer desks in fewer places. The benefits of improved work-life balance and the end of lengthy commutes while gaining enhanced productivity make the payback even shinier.

Throw in amplified alternatives for accessing skilled talent from a broader pool — across states or around the globe — and it’s little wonder that some industries boast an average of 50 to 60 percent of their employees embracing virtual work (Cornell University, Industry and Labor Relations School, Bradford S. Bell, associate professor, “Remote and Virtual Work: Trends, Challenges, and Strategies for Success”, November 2011).

Not for everyone

Even though virtual or home-based offices can bring gobs of goodies to employees and the bottom line, it’s not for every organization. As a manager, how do you decide whether you should try it in your business?

In the Cornell study referenced above, Bell took a look at where remote work is succeeding and where it isn’t. His findings echo what many offices have experienced during the last several years.

From 2001 to 2008 the number of remote workers doubled. This growth is clarified with the percentage of virtual personnel varying by industry. Technology corporations are leading the way with the highest percentage of remote employees, with the insurance industry in the middle of the pack and the financial, consumer products and manufacturing industries tending to have the lowest proportions. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Where the sharing of information or the job function does not require face-to-face interaction, there tends to be a preponderance of virtual staff.

Do you employ remote workers? Marine dealers, manufacturers and distributors tend to have environments rich in face-to-face interactions, often placing them at the low end of virtual worker percentages. Yet certain types (administration and sales, for example) of employees may benefit from remote work options that allow them to divide their time between the office and working from home.

Determining the viability for virtual personnel is often based on whether face-to-face interaction is necessary. If employees can be equally productive outside company doors, they can be great candidates for virtual work.

Not everyone makes a top-notch virtual employee. What? Isn’t that a contradiction from what I said a minute ago? Nope. Another of your challenges as a manager is determining who should and shouldn’t be working on a virtual basis and ensuring that remote workers are able to achieve goals and maximize output.

Your virtual staff must be made up of self-motivated, independent self-starters who don’t need others keeping their in-boxes full and telling them what to do. An ability to work well over the phone and via e-mail is essential. They must be reasonably organized and able to stay on top of their calendars without someone confirming that they participated in a conference call or hit a deadline.

They also must be technology-enabled (laptop, high-speed Internet connection, speaker phone, printer, etc.) and have a dedicated, quiet home work environment free from child- and dependent-care concerns or other distractions. Many technology workers easily qualify in all of these categories, yet others do not. Each position and each person must be individually evaluated. Try piloting a small program and go from there.

Managing them

Once you’ve decided that virtual work is a possibility for selected employees, how do you ensure their work gets done? Goal setting and performance metrics must be set, mutually agreed upon and reviewed at designated intervals (quarterly or every six months).

In my experience managing virtual teams, I’ve found that home-based personnel must feel they are part of the team through regular communication (e-mail, phone, weekly one-on-one with you, the manager). They also require easy access to resources needed to accomplish their job (office supplies, office buddy for questions, etc.), and must have decision-making authority to get things done.

Periodic face-to-face encounters with the rest of the group at conferences, industry events and staff meetings help build team unity, collaboration and trust. For distance workers, these in-person sessions should take place at least twice a year, and more often if feasible.

In certain organizations, today’s office environment may be a good deal quieter than it was several years ago, but that’s not saying live communication has gone away. Even though many employees generate and respond to 50 to 100 e-mails a day, nothing beats a 15-minute phone conversation for quickly and effectively working through questions or confusion.

Although business is increasingly being done through digital communication and phone conferencing, the need to engage on a face-to-face basis will not be erased. Attendance at meetings and networking events continues to be a required component in all relationship-building blueprints. Despite fantastic growth in online sales and other e-commerce, making a human connection remains a powerful force.

Depending on the type of transaction involved, the best way for your boating and marine customer to remember the great product or service you provided may be for them to look you in the eye, shake your hand and return the smile. There’s nothing virtual about that and never will be.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@master yoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.

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