DELIGHT YOUR EMPLOYEES WITH VIRTUAL WORKING AND BOOST PRODUCTIVITY.
The workplace is constantly evolving, and a whole range of trends influence how it develops. Take the open plan office: a major reason for its emergence was down to new trends in architecture which saw most offices move from being dominated by cubicles to open plan environments.
But it wasn’t just architecture that changed the layout of typical offices. Beliefs about people management encouraged open plan offices too, fuelled by the idea that they encouraged transparency and a ‘flatter’ hierarchy. Technology also played a major role – the ability to hot desk and work flexibly, where people aren’t welded to one local machine on a desktop, requires a central file store that can be accessed from anywhere.
The virtual workforce represents the next evolution in the workplace. As more and more workers are able and willing to work from outside the traditional office, there is a growing demand in businesses of all sizes for this new approach to the professional environment.
The ability to work virtually offers significant benefits – from reduced staff turnover to higher productivity and lower stress. We explore why in more detail, as well as addressing common concerns managers have about employees being out of sight. We also look at some of the practicalities of creating your own virtual workforce – it’s easier than you might think.
ENGAGE, INSPIRE AND EMPOWER YOUR EMPLOYEES.
The ability to work virtually makes your company stand out – both for customers and colleagues – and is ever easier to achieve. The virtual workforce is not a new concept. For instance, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have been available in businesses since the 1980s. Similarly, the advent of email – and fax before that – has allowed employees to work from a distance for decades.
What has changed, however, is the speed and ease with which virtual working is now possible. For instance, cloud technologies allow colleagues to collaborate on documents instantaneously wherever they are on the planet. Tools like Skype for Business allow for real-time communications regardless of location, and the explosion of mobile technology means people really can be ‘at the office’ wherever they are.
However, the virtual workforce is about more than just the available technology. It also needs to be seen in relation to a range of additional trends which are beginning to affect businesses everywhere:
A DEMAND FOR GREATER FLEXIBILITY.
The virtual workforce is now widely possible. As a result, many employees have come to expect that they will have the option to work from home a couple of days per week. The employers that allow for virtual working are seen as more attractive by prospective job seekers.
THE ‘GIG’ ECONOMY.
The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of people in the UK describing themselves as self-employed. Offering a virtual working environment gives you the opportunity to rapidly provide external employees access to your environments.
SUSTAINABILITY AND EMPLOYEE SATISFACTION.
There aren’t many workers who relish a long commute to work. Not only are season tickets expensive, commuting is also stressful and can be harmful to the environment. Allowing employees to work virtually and travel to the office less often can have multiple benefits.
BOOST PRODUCTIVITY. REDUCE STRESS & EMPLOYEE TURNOVER.
Data from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey found that last year, around 13.7% of the UK population works from home, a figure which is constantly on the rise. The benefits of creating a virtual workforce are significant: YouGov research published in October 2015 found that 30% of virtual workers felt that their productivity increased when they worked remotely. The PGI found that 82% of virtual workers were less stressed than office-based colleagues and a study by Stanford University found that employee turnover dropped by as much as 50% at companies with a virtual workforce.
This all represents an exciting opportunity. Nevertheless, employers have valid concerns about the virtual workforce. Managers need to feel they can trust employees to actually do their jobs. Regulated industries may feel nervous about employees accessing sensitive data from their local café and many workers might miss the interaction and relationships they build with colleagues.
CREATE THE VIRTUAL WORKFORCE THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU.
As with any new technology or management trend, the way you react to the opportunities it presents will determine its success. Understanding how the virtual workforce could be applied in your business, and implementing it in a way that brings about change positively, will take long term planning, strategy and change management. Done well, you will be excellently placed to reap the rewards of this new workforce evolution years in advance of your competitors.
FIVE SIMPLE STEPS TO CREATING A VIRTUAL WORKPLACE.
How to implement the virtual workforce.
Ideally, your virtual workforce will see employees happily ‘telecommuting’ a few days per week. They’ll work seamlessly with their colleagues – whether they’re in the physical office or their local café – via an online working hub. And, they’ll be more productive due to having fewer distractions and less stress from a long commute. Creating this positive environment, and sidestepping potential risks that can arise with virtual working, will require a little planning and implementing certain precautions.
So, how can you create a virtual workforce that is positive, functional and effective? Your first step should be to set up a virtual workforce with strong foundations and then follow best practice to ensure workers get the most out of this approach. By implementing the following five steps, you’ll be well on your way to creating a powerful virtual workforce.
1. EVALUATE AND ASSESS.
As with any new business initiative, you need to draw up the pros and cons of creating a virtual workforce. Is it really appropriate for your business? And if so, which departments in particular? Your business may not be at a mature enough stage to warrant a virtual workforce; sit down with a project team and map out the costs and benefits of this approach and decide if it’s really the right thing for the way you work. What would be the potential benefits? And what drawbacks might arise?
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT TECHNOLOGY.
Virtual workforces are only possible with the appropriate technology in place. It’s therefore worthwhile to assess a range of products from major providers. Some companies choose to opt for a major provider that can offer a central tool (such as Microsoft’s Office 365) to access everything virtually. Others opt for a ‘mix and match’ approach, using different tools from a range of smaller providers for more specific processes.
3. TEST, THEN DEPLOY.
Before initiating your virtual workforce company-wide, it’s best practice to test the new approach with a small team. Learn lessons from that team and draw up some best practice guidelines before deploying company-wide.
4. SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS.
When employees are working remotely, they should have a clear understanding of the work they are expected to do. While in the office, it can be clearer what tasks they should be doing, and they are typically given additional ad hoc tasks as and when such work arises. By contrast, at home, their ‘to do’ list might be less obvious. You should ensure you have a system to manage people’s task lists, diaries and provide visibility into people’s activity.
5. COMMUNICATE AND COLLABORATE.
There is a huge range of available tools that allow the virtual workforce to communicate – many of which might be more appropriate than lengthy email chains that inundate inboxes. Your virtual workforce can benefit from a diversity of instant messaging tools; ‘WhatsApp’-style enterprise text messengers, VoIP (Voice over IP – such as Skype) and online applications which allow for more neutral and immediate conversations.
HOW DO YOU KNOW EMPLOYEES ARE WORKING?
Any workforce requires trust – even within the office, managers cannot monitor everything their teams are doing all the time. Nonetheless, there is a risk that people will ‘slack off’ if they’re not being watched. To counter this, many enterprise technologies allow you to track activity of individual users. So, if you suspect someone isn’t pulling their weight, you can view how long they actually spend actively logged into your online environment and what they’ve actually done while there.
DON’T EMPLOYEES NEED A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF ‘FACE TIME’?
Humans are social creatures, so there is enormous value in being together in the office; encouraging collaboration and the sparking of new ideas.You might adopt a policy where employees can come to the office flexibly, perhaps working from home one or two days per week. Again, using the right tools – be that an enterprise social network or regular VoIP meetings – can encourage a similar degree of interaction to what office-based colleagues would have anyway.
IS IT SAFE TO HAVE OUR DATA ACCESSED FROM OUTSIDE THE OFFICE?
Whether it’s HR files or legal documents, you might feel concerned about employees accessing your company data from outside the office. What if it fell into the wrong hands, or was leaked to rivals by a disgruntled employee? These are risks, but such leaks could still happen if you never let that data out of sight. Setting up a secure, permissions-based document library is essential. You should have a clear policy that all staff understand, and use mobile device management software to give you control over how employee devices are being used.
VIRTUAL WORKING HAS NEVER BEEN MORE COST-EFFECTIVE OR EASY TO IMPLEMENT.
How can you begin creating your new environment?
In the last few years, a plethora of technological advances have put the possibility of creating a virtual workforce within reach for most companies. No longer is the virtual workforce only relevant to international organisations or businesses that depend primarily on office-style working. The technologies that support virtual working can be used by anyone from warehouse workers to wholesalers, from delivery drivers to directors, from consultants to contractors. This technology allows access to crucial data, documents and software wherever the user is, whatever device they use to connect to it.
However, while the technology is now widely available, many employees are continuing to use existing and often outdated software which requires that they be in a physical place at a specific time to be productive. Creating a virtual workforce and accessing the benefits it promises will require some investment – although this need not always represent huge up-front costs. Many tools used to build a virtual workforce are provided as a service, meaning you pay a relatively low monthly fee for each individual licence.
So, what are the investments you’ll need to make in order to build your virtual workforce?
EQUIPMENT AND HARDWARE.
While the virtual workforce can help you spend less money on maintaining servers in your company’s buildings, you will still have hardware requirements. First among these will be devices for ‘virtual’ staff. You may opt for a policy that allows workers to use their own computers, laptops and tablets to access company data, but it may be more effective to provide your own tools for consistency and training purposes.
If some employees are spending much of their time in home offices, you may need to think about providing appropriate office chairs, desks, keyboards, headsets for voice calls and additional monitors, for example. You will also need to consider broadband in their homes. While internet connections are generally improving in the UK, there are areas where coverage is still poor. You will need to investigate this for your area, and explore the costs of providing employees with the best service possible.
A CENTRAL DOCUMENT STORAGE AND ONLINE HUB.
It will be essential to provide access to company data in the cloud. Typically, this will require file storage, sharing and collaboration tools which allow virtual employees to access data from wherever they are working.
EFFECTIVE ENTERPRISE MOBILE APPS.
Many of the major enterprise IT providers offer their tools as apps that can be used online via mobile devices and laptops. However, if you currently use any custom apps in the business, investigate how you can bring them online so that distance workers can access them.
TELECOMS, VIDEO AND VOIP (VOICE OVER INTERNET PROTOCOL)
Communication is central to virtual workplace success, and you will need to select a communications tool which supports this; allowing virtual workers to make and receive calls and communicate with colleagues regardless of location.
Essential in any business but especially so when the workforce is accessing data from outside the office, you will need to decide on a security strategy. Central to this will be the granting of permission levels and methods of authenticating the identity of employees accessing data from outside the office walls. You should also investigate mobile device management tools which offer the ability to wipe all data from a device remotely in case it is lost or stolen.
While creating a virtual workforce may involve some upfront investment, the long-term benefits and ROI will outweigh any initial costs. An immediate benefit is that you reduce your IT costs and end the need for expensive upgrades – instead, your service provider takes charge of hardware maintenance and you pay a much lower, scalable and predictable monthly fee. Longer term, you provide staff with more flexible working that fits better around how they actually want to work – encouraging greater loyalty and higher productivity.