Virtual Offices Provide Real Advantages

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - 09:53

Allowing employees to work from home can be good for business, but managers need to know what they’re dealing with – it isn’t for everyone. By Emma Williams

The virtual office concept is becoming more prevalent as employers look to it as a cost-saving measure and employees rank the flexibility as one of the most desirable employment options.

Allowing employees to work from home means your business has the ability to recruit the best workers no matter where they live and you don’t have to limit your search to those who already live in the area or are willing to move. It is also a way of retaining busy parents or those considering retirement.

Daniel Musson, CEO of the Australian Institute of Management, says businesses often benefit because flexible work arrangements attract workers who are self-driven and have significant experience professionally.

“We have about 250 employees but 1200 contracted facilitators. Our flexible workforce is based around our training programs as we bring people in to deliver training,” Musson says. “It’s a great outcome for the organisation because we are not carrying large employee overheads, but at the same time people can work for other clients.”

For some organisations the virtual office concept has been tried and tested and, as Yahoo discovered, is not for all.

Last year, Yahoo’s new Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer made the bold move of ordering workers back to the office. The policy change was explained in a company memo citing face-to-face interaction among employees as essential in fostering a collaborative culture. Bank America also made the move to reduce its popular “work-from home” program, calling for workers in certain roles within the organisation to return to the office.

So when deciding if a virtual office structure will work in your organisation, there are factors that need to be considered. A 2012 white paper on managing in a flexible work environment suggested that to successfully implement flexible work arrangements, managers needed “more training, improved skills in negotiation and communication, better performance management techniques, higher levels of organisation, the capacity to co-ordinate complexity and a strategic ability to see the long-term benefits, even if short-term costs are looming large”.

One concern managers have is not knowing if their team is performing when not being watched. Musson recommends managers communicate clear, measurable objectives to their employees.

“You need to put processes in place so the employee can keep connected regardless of their workspace,” Musson says. One way to monitor progress is to set specific objectives that workers must achieve within an agreed time period. Alternatively, you may require your staff keep a diary of how they assigned their time each day that you can review.

“Culturally in organisations, we need to be more focused on outputs than inputs. If they’re getting the job done and getting the results then we should be happy,” Musson says.

As well as establishing the workload that is expected, the 2012 white paper also suggested managers should discuss with their staff agreed rules for the use of emails, texting and phone calls, including reasonable expectations around response times and guidelines for staff outside of their agreed hours.

While it is important to ensure workers are being productive, it is equally essential to make sure they’re not overburdened. Without being able to see them, it is easy to forget what they’re working on and assign them extra tasks.

Another issue managers need to consider is how to foster relationships with subordinates when you can’t see them. This will depend on individual staff members and you need to consider the importance of communication. Will daily phone calls and email suffice, or is some face-to-face time essential?

Musson suggests structured systems of communication are the best way to interact with staff.

“Don’t leave it to an ad-hoc ‘call me if you need me’ approach. You have to lock in time. Also, they may work from home but that doesn’t mean they can’t come in once a month or once a quarter. Don’t think that because they work from home they don’t want to be invited to things,” Musson says.

When allowing employees to work remotely, businesses, under work health and safety laws, still have the same obligations to ensure the health and safety of workers, regardless of where the worker performs their duties.

Safe Work Australia suggests risk management of home-based offices may include obtaining information on the home-based work environment and the tasks to be performed, which allows work health and safety risks to be identified and assessed. They also suggest managers provide training, information and equipment the worker needs to do their work in a healthy and safe manner. This could include advice on how to set up a desk so it is safe or provision of ergonomic equipment. This should be followed up by a periodic review of the arrangements to ensure the measures are sufficient.

How to manage yourself

Working remotely can offer a world of flexibility. A study by McCrindle Research in 2013 analysed the lives of 250 people who worked from home and found 45 per cent reported one of the main advantages of working from home was having the flexibility to juggle other commitments, while 25 per cent said it allowed them to enjoy a better work-life balance.

However, the “anywhere office” isn’t about sleeping in late, wearing pyjamas and catching up on housework, and it’s certainly not for everyone. If you’re the type of person who needs company or is easily distracted, you might want to reconsider whether this structure is really for you.

At home you won’t have the luxury of co-workers sitting next to you and interruptions can be frequent. To avoid distractions it is important to differentiate between your home life and your work life. Set strict working hours, like the ones you would adhere to in a real office. That means waking up at a reasonable time, getting dressed like you’re going to work and actually going into a designated “office” room in your house. If you have children you may need to realistically schedule your “office hours” around school or childcare.

Another challenge you may encounter is staying relevant. A 2014 study by Symmetra, an international consulting agency, found that despite flexible working arrangements becoming a permanent feature of some workplaces there is still an unconscious bias against employees who use these options.

The research found that although there is little or no objective evidence to support the negative imputations, those in leadership positions still viewed flexible workers as less committed than traditional full-time employees. So when it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind, it can be difficult to let the boss know you’re motivated, committed and able to take on a bigger role.

Musson advised flexi-workers not to buy into the tall poppy syndrome and to let people know when you are doing a good job. Brush up on your communication skills, make note of how much work you have been doing and explain your strategies for coping with an increased workload if you get a promotion or take on a different role. If possible, schedule face-to-face time and occasionally come into the office.

This article appeared in the May 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.