From cost cutting to freeing up brokers to meet clients, ditching the office has a lot to offer if you can get it right, explains virtual working expert Ruth MacKay
The traditional boundaries of office-based work no longer apply in the modern business environment. With the proliferation of mobile technology, professionals can now work from home, on the road, in their favourite cafe or indeed almost anywhere there is a good internet connection. Never before have workers had so much autonomy over when, where and how they work.
This brings a long list of benefits to the forward-thinking companies that are using virtual workforces to maximise their competitive advantage, attract and retain the best talent, and become first-choice employers, all while cutting overhead costs and increasing productivity.
However, running a successful virtual workforce requires a completely new management philosophy. Traditionally, the manager’s role was to supervise, direct and interact face-to-face with employees. For most managers that was easy. With employees at their desks from nine to five, managers could stop by at any time and check in. Now they’re asking: “How can we maintain solid oversight while allowing our employees the freedom to work virtually?”
That’s a good question, and one that can only be answered with solid planning, training and a top-down understanding of how to implement, integrate and manage a virtual workforce designed to address the challenges of doing business in the 21st century. Follow these four steps to build an effective virtual workforce that will take your business to the next level.
Not every business is the same, so there is no one-size-fits-all virtual workforce that you can simply drag and drop into play. Some businesses will be more suited to a virtual workforce than others, as will certain business units within your company. Take some time to carefully evaluate your business for strategic fit, and consider the following:
- How will a virtual workforce potentially increase your competitive advantage? Consider how a mobile workforce may be able to outpace your competition by providing your clients with on-location service.
- How will a virtual workforce impact your market position? Without the overhead drain of maintaining a bricks-and-mortar office, you may be able to offer discounts to high-value clients or become a lower cost provider.
- Will a virtual workforce open entry into new markets? Having employees stationed around the country and even around the globe operating on a range of time zones may open up new opportunities to expand your territories and enter new markets.
- What is your competition doing? If they have moved or are moving to a virtual workforce, you are definitely at risk of being left behind the eight ball.
STEP 2 Assess
Virtual workforces offer a range of potential benefits, but also require investment in key areas to ensure maximum effectiveness. Like every business decision, you must assess the benefits against the costs to determine if a virtual workforce is the right fit for your organisation.
Here’s some food for thought to get you started:
- Reduction in employee commuting time increases flexibility and improves work–life balance. This leads to reductions in staff attrition and associated recruitment and training costs.
- Fewer in-office distractions can improve employee productivity and boost motivation and engagement.
- Cutting your overhead costs may offer the opportunity to rethink your pricing structure and improve your competitive advantage.
- Potential to improve client relationships via face-to-face visits with staff stationed nearby.
- Required investment in new software and hardware technology to support the virtual model.
- Initial management training required to convert to virtual workforce management practices and techniques.
- Training and support costs required to assist employees transition to new technology and work philosophy.
- Resources may be required to ensure buy-in up and down the management chain to prevent resistance.
STEP 3 Implement
With your evaluation and assessment complete, it’s time to enter the implementation stage. Running a pilot program provides a positive pathway to transitioning to a virtual workforce in one part of your business without impacting overall operations.
Most importantly, you must have the various business units take full ownership of the transition to ensure they have clearly identified both the opportunities and the risks within a virtual workforce. Also, your managers will need to be trained and motivated so as to be up to the challenge of effectively leading their virtual employees.
To run a successful pilot project, ensure that:
- software and hardware selection and application is approved by all of the company’s units
- sales and IT have worked with all areas of management to identify the most effective management of software, hardware and support
- each business unit has clearly written policies that can be easily distributed to your virtual employees.
During your pilot program, look for gaps that may require training, new technology or infrastructure, and recruit staff – either internally or externally – with the attributes required to work virtually. Plan out the scope, tasks, timing, resourcing, costs and acceptance criteria (use these as the basis for your ongoing management metrics) so that the transition is as seamless as possible.
Be disciplined in completing the plan, and after a meaningful period (this should represent at least one complete business cycle) measure outcomes to goals. This will enable you to construct a new project plan that offers solutions to the gaps in the initial cycle. This may be improved by utilising relevant expertise from outside.
STEP 4 Launch!
Your pilot project will have lessened the overall risk while gaining the much-needed support for the virtual model across your organisation. And with all your evaluations, assessments and planning in place, it’s now time to pick a specific date to launch – because the only way you will identify what will work and what will need improvement is by doing it.
Ruth MacKay is the founder and managing director of OURTEL Solutions where she manages a 100% virtual workforce. She is passionate about helping businesses gain a competitive advantage, improve profits and retain top talent through leveraging proven virtual workforce models. Ruth is also the author of the new book, The 21st Century Workforce. For more information visit www.ourtelsolutions.com