Updated: May 23
In the "office-optional" business model, top organizations know it's critical to achieve meaningful communication, a feeling of camaraderie and company cohesiveness. This article will explore the virtual employee trend, it's unique communication characteristics and needs as well as review several high and low-tech ways to stay in touch.
Telecommuting is no longer the wave of the future; it's here and it's taking the world by storm! With improvements in networking technology, e-mail, instant messaging, smart phones and web/video conferencing, companies depend on their employees' productivity in, en route to, and outside of the office. In fact, many businesses expect, or at least encourage, employees to work from home on a regular basis. What is surprising is that some innovative companies are totally virtual, where all work takes place at home, the neighborhood espresso shop, or anyplace that saves commute time, gas, and office space.
Communicating in a Virtual World
So what's different about being a virtual employee? In a word: everything. One of the biggest issues facing the virtual world is a lack of meaningful communication. The ability to remain connected with coworkers and management in a way that minimizes personal and professional isolation is a major hurdle. Without a brick-and-mortar business office, complete with cubicle farm and daily water cooler chats, how are teleworkers to maintain a feeling of camaraderie and company cohesiveness? This article will explore the unique communication characteristics and needs of this trend as well as review several high-tech and low-tech ways to stay in touch.
The 3 Cs of Connectedness
According to a recent article in Inc. magazine, strong communication skills are a "must have" for workers who need to fit into a virtual work community. It's probably a given that the majority of virtual employees communicate frequently, and well, but what are they missing by working remotely? Jeanne L. Allert thinks she has the answer. As she emphasizes in her Training & Development article, "You're Hired, Now Go Home," "Virtual workers need... a daily sense of connectedness to colleagues, the company, and the larger purpose." If this is true, many teleworkers may have a daily need for personal connection much like their physical requirements of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals.
In the typical office, it's fairly easy to form relationships and acquire your RDA of face-to-face time every day. But as a virtual employee, there are obstacles. Let's take a closer look at the three Cs of connection to examine them further:
Connectedness to Colleagues - Virtual employees need to learn how to expand their world through communication with each other, as well as with associates outside of their virtual bubble, by using technology wisely. A daily dose of personal connection can have the power to turn an unhappy, distressed employee into a happy, well-adjusted one.
Connectedness to the Company - Remote employees need a hefty sense of personal connection and contribution to their virtual company. Management is generally responsible for creating a feeling of connectedness to the company and its goals. Individual employees, however, can assist in this effort to build a corporate community through their personal initiative to openly contact management and fellow employees.
Connectedness to a Cause - Geographically dispersed workers feel more productive, useful and secure when they have a tie to a higher cause, even one related to a professional organization. Working toward a larger purpose as a team can also create strong bonds between employees.
Connecting with Colleagues
Connecting with colleagues is as easy as peeking over your cube wall and saying "hi" when you're in an office; in the office-optional world, however, it means making good use of the available technology. Fortunately, IT communication tools are improving all the time. In Telecommuting: Facing Reality in the Virtual Office, a paper presented at a recent Society for Technical Communication conference, Bonnie J. Davis offers tips for management and employees to reduce isolation and use technology well. Whether you're a virtual employee or simply telecommute a few days a week, her ideas ring true:
Partner a telecommuter and office worker, if possible.
Be very proactive; don't wait for things to happen or for people to contact you.
Initiate conversations using an online chat program.
Incorporate teleconferencing and videoconferencing into your regular communications.
Did you pick up on the fact that Bonnie's ideas relate to technology? There are a multitude of communication tools and techniques available. But here's the catch: what works for you or your company is more art than science. In some businesses, instant messaging, e-mail and web meetings are the tools of choice; for others, phone or virtual private networking (VPN) keeps teleworkers in touch. The trick is to be flexible with your communication choices.
Some technology-free suggestions involve scheduling breakfast with home office peers, inviting a peer to lunch (your treat), visiting former coworkers, and speaking to professional associations. If you're open to the idea of networking, consider social media sites or apps to establish new connections and rekindle old ones. You can even spend some time commenting on blogs related to your area of expertise. Believe it or not, you'll get responses.
Connecting with the Company
In the office-included business scenario, connecting with the company is a snap. Just step into your manager's office for friendly chit-chat or attend a management presentation. Without the use of bricks and mortar, helping employees connect with the company can be a major management headache. While it's relatively quick to set up instant messaging and other communication software or hardware, it can be daunting to communicate business goals, strategies and philosophy without face-to-face meetings. Communication is especially tough for management teams with an entire network of virtual employees.
Inc. magazine believes virtual workers "don't have the luxury of communicating face-to-face ... and they miss the nonverbal as well as verbal cues." Are there specific management techniques that do pay off with this communication dilemma? Inc. says management should "Work with remote employees to increase their sense of company loyalty by sharing information (especially about how the company is meeting its goals) and by encouraging face-to-face get-togethers."
To help office-optional workers feel allied with their company, some executive teams hold weekly or monthly web-based meetings designed to get employees talking as a group and make sure everyone's on the same page. If you're a manager, consider meeting with employees on an individual basis as well. After all, most teleworkers have been employed by traditional businesses in the past and tend to expect a certain amount of "face time" with their manager. Organizing an end-of-the-year or end-of-the-project party is another way to strengthen the union of company and employee. If you're able, host casual social events (think food and drink) to discuss the state of the company, upcoming work assignments, and help employees stay "in the know" about the business.
Companies can provide the necessary tools for employees to stay connected, but it's up to employees to use them. With the right tools and approach, managers can foster a strong connection between their company and virtual employees.
Connecting to a Cause
In the traditional office, hardly a day goes by without a chance to volunteer for a good cause. It's human nature to crave a connection to a higher purpose. According to the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, volunteer work can boost your energy level six ways: it enhances happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health and mood.
When you're a teleworker, opportunities for connecting to a larger purpose seem limited. But all you really have to do is check your e-mail inbox. Do you have an invitation to join a professional association? These busy organizations offer easy ways for virtual employees to put their talent to work. It's fairly painless to attend meetings with other teleworkers or volunteer service to an organization related to your business. These tactics provide solid ways to make sense of business trends while connecting to a larger purpose. Before you launch into a volunteer effort, though, think about your strengths. Are you skilled in meeting people and establishing good customer relations? If so, take part in your professional organization by becoming a public relations representative. Do you like to see other professionals expand their knowledge of their field of expertise? If this is a match, offer your services to an educational committee. The list of meaningful and career-building connections goes on and on.
If you're not into professional organizations, think about performing volunteer work with other members of your virtual team. If your company allows off-site group meetings, round up coworkers for a Habitat for Humanity weekend or to perform community service at a pet shelter or food bank. A resource for women who are re-entering the workforce, Fresh Start, is always on the lookout for volunteers to present workshops, train women re-entering the workforce and serve as mentors. This could be a perfect fit for training specialists or professionals with speaking experience. On a smaller scale, initiate a food drive on your own or donate blood. Some of the best bonding experiences begin from the friendships you establish by working for a greater cause.
As a virtual employee or manager of a virtual team, you can have the best of both worlds: office-included and office-optional. Whether your office is at home, the gym or the neighborhood cafe, all it takes is a little planning to ensure your daily requirement of personal connection.