The art of directing a virtual workforce


IT managers and CIOs trying to decide what level of telecommuting is appropriate for their employees might be asking the wrong question, according to one management expert.

Telecommuting has become such a significant part of the corporate world that debating its advantages and disadvantages may no longer be the focal issue. Instead, executives are advised to focus their attention on whether their managers are equipped with the skills to effectively manage a growing breed of virtual workers.

“I don’t think a lot of companies realize that there is a difference between managing people that are [on site] and managing people who are virtual,” said Colleen Garton, a 20-year-veteran in project management. Garton is also co-author of the book Managing Without Walls, which provides tips and insights on how to successfully manage teleworkers.

One of the biggest issues in managing remote workers is communication. A manager may find it easier to get things done with a team that’s on site all the time, as this setup facilitates more effective interaction.

The situation may not be as easy if your team is off-site and working from a remote location, said Garton. “More than 80 per cent of communication between people is generally non-verbal — hand gestures, facial expressions. When you are managing virtually, you are losing most of that non-verbal communication.”

By telecommuting, an employee loses his “peripheral vision” of the organization, according to Garton. An employee working on site can pick up bits and pieces of business information through conversations in the coffee room or bumping into co-workers in the hallway. A staff working remotely loses this advantage, she explained.

“Often, when problems start to arise, companies don’t realize that it’s because their managers aren’t trained to manage in that (virtual) environment and they think, ‘Oh, well maybe people working from home is not a good idea.’”

To be effective, the leader of a virtual team needs to make extra efforts to ensure that communication among team members is of good quality. This includes asking the right questions and refining your listening skills, Garton explained. In addition, managers must be proactive in keeping the virtual team members involved in matters relating to the organization.

Failure to effectively communicate with the teleworking members of the team often causes a remote worker to feel left out and not part of the corporate structure. This may have serious consequences for business productivity, Garton said.

“When you have a team where some of the people work locally and some work virtually, you can get some resentment building up quite often among team members because they feel that the local teams are getting more attention and more help from the manager,” the author said.

A few years ago, decision makers at IBM Corp. found themselves facing this problem. The company had created a flexible work environment for its employees to the point where 40 per cent of its 330,000 employees worked remotely.

As much as this structure created a progressive working atmosphere, IBM realized that as its workers became more distributed, employee morale was also weakening. This was one of the findings from a company survey initiated in 2002 by Dan Pelino, general manager for IBM’s global healthcare and life sciences business.

Employees felt they lacked a strong connection to their peers and institutional knowledge wasn’t being passed down within the company, Pelino said.

Pelino and other executives then set out to improve corporate culture at IBM. One area of improvement was rethinking its management strategies. “We had to retrain ourselves” to move from a world of physical learning, leading and managing, to a world of virtual learning, leading and managing, Pelino said.

With files from IDG News Service

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