This article was updated on June 18, 2018.
While the various types of work have changed over time, the relationship between worker and management has generally remained the same: employees work side by side at a place of business. As a major departure from that standard, it's understandable, then, why the thought of virtual work may cause some CFOs and their organizations some anxiety.
But virtual work is on the rise and employers are allowing it to happen. According to Global Workplace Analytics, "50 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework." Ultimately, whether one wants to hire virtual workers or not, chances are it's either happening now or will take place in the future.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The good news is that technology creates tremendous opportunities to leverage and access the work produced by remote employees. With information stored in the cloud, work that was once accessible only from a laptop or PC through a company server is now within easy reach through Wi-Fi or a mobile device.
Virtual work environments enable companies to invest in high-quality talent, reduce the amount of office space required, distribute information, have it available for workers from anywhere and visually communicate with team members independent of location, which reduces the time and cost of travel. Creating appropriate structures that take advantage of technology and the availability of a global and mobile workforce can affect your bottom line in a positive way.
There are trade-offs when physical connections are reduced, however, as workers operating externally can feel isolated, especially if they tend to feed off the energy that working face-to-face with a team creates. There are also people who simply require the structure that a physical office provides, since telecommuting takes a certain amount of self-discipline to make it successful. Additionally, time differences can make it a challenge to communicate with employees who are across the globe.
Diligence Is Necessary
Creating a culture that matches an evolving virtual work environment requires thought and intentional action. The leaders who think through the challenges, consider a range of possibilities as solutions and progressively move forward will reap the rewards of accessing and leveraging resources, while others will struggle, stagnate and likely perish. In coming years, employees will only push for more (not fewer) opportunities to work virtually and ask for greater freedom to determine how they work, especially with the millennial and Generation Z workforce on the rise.
A virtual work environment begins with searching for people who fit that culture. A clear understanding of the mission and vision for the work they will do is critical for onboarding the right talent. Clarity of job, purpose, goals and accountability will help create a successful environment. Exacting expectations and goals for each individual on the team will allow everyone to stay more focused on work and less on location.
Find innovative ways to communicate and connect with people who are out of the office or gone regularly for stretches of time. Some businesses schedule a virtual lunch call each week so everyone on the team can talk about matters unrelated to work. Relationships are personal, and attempts should be made to keep them that way — even more so when people are working virtually.
Beyond Virtual Workers
Businesses are increasingly leveraging the virtual world to create a new on-demand workforce that offers specialized labor to meet business and personal demands. On-demand employees are available for projects that require temporary work, and it gives them the flexibility of working when, where and for whom, they want.
Indeed, the need for on-demand employees is expected to increase. PwC projects that by 2030, the number of U.S. workers in full-time, permanent positions at organizations will drop to just 9 percent.
Embracing virtual workers as well as the future advances that will surely come can be challenging, but it can be a learned skill. Consider the Navy Seals' mantra: "Get comfortable being uncomfortable." Driving achievement in uncertain environments, they are proof that people can acclimate to changing conditions with the right purpose and mission in front of them.
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