The Many Perks of Virtual Work

Working from home, or in a remote environment not immediately accessible to company headquarters, has become more than a fad. In today's global economy it's almost become a necessity. Still, there are employers that hesitate to let go of the opportunity to manage employees in person, according to a recent study.

The study, "Virtual Work Environments in a Post-Recession Era," conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Brandman University, shows conflicted opinions on the merits of a virtual work environment. While virtual teams are indisputably on the rise, some companies still see a difficulty in building trust and maintaining accountability as major barriers to embracing this business strategy. In other words, they find it hard to trust employees and establish camaraderie with them if they can't see them in person.

Researchers included senior leaders and hiring managers in America's Fortune 500 and large companies (5,000 employees or more) who are either actively or gradually hiring new employees. The survey revealed a strong adoption of virtual teams, defined as a group of people working together from disparate locations on a specific project, with 40 percent of survey respondents saying that 40 percent or more of their company's employees work in virtual teams today. More than half of respondents (56 percent) expect virtual teaming to increase in the next one to three years.

Many Are Not Getting the Most Out of Homework

However, the majority did not view virtual teaming as an important strategy to enable growth opportunities in new markets (30 percent), provide employee flexibility and job satisfaction (35 percent) or promote an environmentally-friendly business (15 percent). Respondents said that their companies primarily engage in virtual teaming as a way to reduce travel and real estate expenses (61 percent) and recruit high-quality talent regardless of geography (59 percent).

"The research suggests that senior leaders and hiring managers accept that a global economy demands virtual teaming, but we believe that hey may be shortsighted on its benefits," said Charles Bullock, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Brandman University. "Right now, companies primarily view virtual teaming as a way to cut travel and real estate costs, but innovative companies can leverage virtual teaming as a competitive advantage when the organizational culture promotes trust and communication, and incorporates an array of interactive technologies to foster better collaboration."

Managers Still Rely on Personal Contact to Build Trust

More than half (57 percent) of respondents said that earning trust was a challenge for managers of virtual teams. Other key concerns for managers included:

  • Effectively communicating with remote employees (49 percent)
  • Managing projects and deadlines successfully (43 percent)
  • Creating consensus during decision-making (43 percent)

Respondent interviews showed that missing intangibles, such as cultural or body language cues and the absence of "water cooler" or more informal communications, are key factors that impact trust. Managers can remedy this by finding other avenues to establish rapport, perhaps through the use of social media or employee portals.

How Employees Can Advance in a Virtual Environment

To be competitive in an environment where you don't have day-to-day personal contact with your boss or supervisor, the study identified several skill sets as integral for employee success in a virtual working environment, including:

  • Solid communication skills (61 percent)
  • Ability to self-pace and work independently (53 percent)
  • Accountability (51 percent)

"The workforce of the future must adapt to what was previously a subtle move toward a borderless office and is now accelerating with a post-recession economy and steady adoption of collaborative business technologies," said Bullock. "Traditional leadership and management skills are the price of admission to being competitive in business today. Leaders also need a range of technical and collaborative skills to get ahead in an increasingly virtual business world."

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