by Bob Nelson, Ph.D. | January 22, 2019
According to the Work and Families Research Network, virtual work is when individuals "work from home, 'on the road,' or otherwise outside of traditional centralized offices." Seventy-five percent of all current organization have employees who work remotely, currently 40 percent of all workers -- either at home or from a different work location. This number is expected to increase to half the workforce by next year. 

What are you doing to assure such workers are able to be successful? Since most managers feel they can't trust what they can't see, you need a different approach for this type of worker to be successful. I'm convinced that work is increasingly becoming a state of mind more than a place to be and once everyone is in the right state of mind, they can work from anywhere. From my research and experience, here are key points to take into account to get the best from your virtual workers:

The role of your managers is key. Whether virtual work will be successful in your organization will be a function of how your managers handle it. According to a study by Cisco, key leadership traits for best managing virtual works are: 1) Naturally proactive, 2) good communication skills, and 3) comfortable with ambiguity. One of the biggest challenges your managers will have is in earning trust of their virtual workers, which has been shown to take four times longer to build in a virtual environment.

Worker orientation is critical. When working with others from a distance, it greatly helps to have them initially meet face to face. If you have a traditional office, invite the virtual worker in to meet management and others they will be working with on an ongoing basis or when problems arise. This will give them a better sense as to the purpose of their work and how it fits into the overall objectives of the organization.

Set clear goals and expectations.
 All performance starts with clear goals and expectations, and this is even more important when dealing with virtual workers. You need a master plan, broken down into doable chunks of work, e.g., able to complete in two-week periods, that can be clearly delegated with progress clearly tracked. The best goals are few in number, specific in focus, and reasonably attainable. Goals should be arrived at through collaborative discussion between the worker and his/her manager or team.

Establish work rules and processes. Work around core hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in which everyone is generally available regardless of the time zone they are in with the remaining working hours dedicated to individual work and collaboration between team members as is necessary. Team members need to communicate when they will be offline. A lot of virtual teams meet briefly (15 minutes) each morning to have each person share what he or she is working on and if any potential obstacles are anticipated (that the manager or other team members can assist with).

Extraordinary communication needs to be the norm. We know from electronics that as you increase the distance from the source, the strength of the signal proportionally decreases. Likewise, with virtual workers, the farther people are removed, the more you need to communicate with them to keep them involved. Virtual workers need communication to be much more direct and transparent since there are fewer contextual clues (facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc.) when communicating. There is a positive correlation between "visibility" and perceived care. Virtual workers are "seen" via an active presence and responsiveness from those they work with and for. As such, response times are critical (e.g., returned phone calls and emails within three hours).

As HP co-founder Bill Hewlett once put it: "Men and women want to do a good job, a creative job, and if they are provided the proper environment, they will do so." Pay attention to getting the above points right and you will be well on your way to having a successful virtual workforce.

Bob Nelson, Ph.D.is considered the leading authority on employee recognition, rewards and engagement in the world and has sold 5 million books on those topics, including 1,501 Ways to Reward Employees, and his most recent book, 1,001 Ways to Engage Employees. Dr. Bob works with Snappy Gifts to provide fun & exciting employee incentives that work. Visit meetsnappy.com for details.