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Managing a Virtual Work Force: Eight Ways for Managers to Support Mobile Workers

The virtual work force is rapidly expanding. Don't let it lead to growing management problems.

Spring 2011
It's no secret that technology and the increasingly wired world have radically transformed when and where works gets done. For all of the benefits of allowing employees to work remotely - such as eliminating commutes, saving on office space, and accessing global talent - if a business can't effectively manage distributed workers, the cons of a virtual work force will quickly outweigh the pros.

For today's business professionals, work is something that is done, rather than a fixed place to go to. Research shows that workers are no longer tethered to a single corporate location. More than one third of the global work force will be mobile by 2013, according to IDC's Worldwide Mobile Worker Population 2009-2013 Forecast.

Additionally, the Regus Business Tracker survey, released in February, revealed that 85 percent of American businesses now offer some form of flexible working, including virtual offices.

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Challenges of Managing a Virtual Work Force

Given the high cost of corporate real estate and the surge in underutilized office space (which Regus estimates at about 40 percent), enterprises are retreating from the traditional workplace model of office space at a fixed location and shifting to a flexible workplace strategy. This empowers businesses to take advantage of global opportunities, many of which will be located in emerging markets such as China and India. Thirty-nine percent of companies plan to increase their expatriate staff over the next five years, according to a September 2010 Economist Intelligence Unit report (Up or Out: Next Moves for the Modern Expatriate).

Workplace flexibility doesn't mean simply giving an employee a laptop and a smartphone and sending them off to do their job. Careful thought and planning is required to determine the best approach to working in a regionally- or globally-distributed environment. (When should employees opt for conference calls, video conferencing, or face-to-face meetings?) Addressing the cultural issues of a diverse work force scattered across several continents also presents challenges. Many managers are not fully comfortable supervising a work force they can't physically see every day. This is equally valid for expatriates and local staff. The Economist Intelligence Unit's report found that roughly three in five expatriates say their corporate headquarters does not sufficiently grasp the nature of the local business environment.

For workers, being part of a distributed labor force has its positives and negatives. Workers often feel they must overcompensate to demonstrate their value to the company. Others admit feeling isolated from co-workers and don't feel part of a team.

Eight Ways for Managers to Support Mobile Workers
While nuances exist among different organizations, taking time to implement the following steps will ensure a sense of connection for a widely dispersed work force.

• Create a vision for your new workplace initiative that incorporates objectives and benefits to the individual, the team, and the organization.
• Implement a results-based management program that will allow managers to easily set and measure goals and objectives for their virtual work force.
• Understand the nature of the work that employees are engaged in. For instance, is it highly structured or unstructured? What levels of interaction are required?
• Lead by example by scheduling regular meetings using the optimal mode of communication to suit the task. For example, choose audio conferencing for general business updates, videoconferencing for introducing new products or processes, and in-person meetings for training or business planning.
• Offer employees working remotely or from home access to professional workplaces when they need it. Workers need to be assured they can access professional services and support when required.
• Provide remote or home-based employees with access to professional collaboration space that can be utilized on an as-needed basis. Whether meeting with colleagues or clients, or working on a special project, workers need a professional location where they can come together face-to-face for an hour, a day, a week, or even several months.
• Encourage corporate camaraderie by creating opportunities for your employees to socialize and form networks with other professionals. These connections reinforce corporate culture and identity.
• Empathize with employees and listen to their concerns regarding working remotely to help secure their buy-in. Employee input can help improve the execution of the virtual working program.

Building Cohesion
Properly supporting employees as they transition to working in non-traditional settings is critical to the success of any flexible working strategy.

Enterprises need to provide dispersed employees with a choice of work environments that align with the project at hand. Regus studies confirm that mobile workers can easily cope with changing environments, locations, and situations. Simply put, they require a location that is equipped with all of the resources to allow them to execute.

A distributed work force does not have to mean a chaotic work force. Integrating remote workers, building and sustaining a strong team and corporate identity, and keeping all employees connected are not only vital for building trust, but are equally important for fostering loyalty and respect within an organization. Businesses can't risk isolating their mobile workers; they must adjust their management models to accommodate the professional and social demands of a distributed work force. With management and employee buy-in and a prepared work force with the proper resources at their disposal, enterprises will be more agile and in a better position to thrive.

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