Managing virtual workers


For varied reasons, your company might be contemplating whether to allow employees to telecommute or work remotely.

If that’s the case, it would do well to heed the words of a management expert who believes organizations might be asking the wrong question when it comes to virtual working.

Telecommuting has become such a significant facet of corporate culture that debating its advantages and disadvantages may seem futile.

Instead, executives should focus their attention on whether their managers are equipped with the skills to effectively handle a growing breed of virtual workers, says Colleen Garton, a 20-year-veteran in project management.

“I don’t think a lot of companies realize there is a difference between managing people that are [onsite] and managing people who are virtual,” said Garton, who has co-authored the book, Managing Without Walls, which provides tips and insights on how to successfully manage teleworkers.

According to Garton, communication – or the lack thereof – is one of the biggest issues in managing remote workers.

A manager may find it easier to get things done according to expectations with team members who are onsite all the time as physical presence facilitates effective interaction.

The situation may not be as easy if your team is offsite 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 onsite 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.’”

Garton said to be effective, the leader of a virtual team needs to make an extra effort to ensure 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 and included 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. And that may have serious consequences to business productivity, Garton said.

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

A few years ago, IBM Corp. found itself in the same dilemma.

The company was so successful in creating a flexible work environment for its employees that today, 40 per cent of its 330,000 employees work remotely.

As much as this structure created a progressive working atmosphere, IBM realized that as workers became more distributed, employee morale was also weakening. This was according to 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 with their peers, they were missing out on mentoring relationships, and institutional knowledge wasn’t being passed down within the company, Pelino said. He recalled that employees used to joke internally that “IBM” stood for “I’m by myself.”

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.

Estimates from the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) based in Scottsdale, Ariz. shows that in a little over a decade, the current number of teleworkers in the U.S. rose to 26 million, from only four million in 1995. ITAC also estimated this number will reach 100 million by 2010.

Garton noted there is little awareness among companies on the issue of effective virtual management. The first step is simply to acknowledge there is a difference between managing an onsite team and managing virtual staff, she said.

“One of the biggest problems is getting that awareness in corporations that they really do need to focus their attention on the area of management and building their skills as virtual managers.”

– With files from IDG News Service


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