Virtual Workplace Management

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Digital Library > Operations and Technology > Virtual offices"Virtual Workplace Management"

A "virtual company" takes telecommuting to the next level. No office staff, no regular office hours — indeed, no office! But virtual companies involve a unique set of challenges. Can your business benefit by going virtual?

OVERVIEW [top]

As your company grows, it becomes ever more necessary to manage workers with whom you don't have daily contact. Even if you don't have a totally virtual company, you establish operations in remote geographic areas and spread work over two and three shifts per day. You have telecommuting and job-sharing workers. You outsource operations that require frequent communication, guidance and decisions. You develop relationships with customers that require you to work together on projects and, either make joint plans and decisions from multiple locations, or post your service reps to customer worksites.

How can you most effectively manage workers you seldom meet?

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • An overall approach to managing from a distance.
  • Tips for getting the details right.

.SOLUTION [top]

When a virtual-workplace team starts a new project, how can you best assure success?

In-Person Meetings

Meet with team or project participants before the remote operation starts. A major objective of the initial meeting is for teammates to get acquainted and bond as a community so they will be willing to make sacrifices to help each other later when it is in the group's interest.

  • Work together to establish and document goals, objectives, work standards and output-quality standards. Assign and schedule tasks for individuals and groups insofar as possible at the startup stage. Draft detailed documentation for all aspects of remote operations because remote workers won't be able to turn and ask a neighbor to clarify a poorly remembered detail.

    If your entire company is virtual, you'll have to pay special attention to dividing staff functions. You must establish operating rules today to avoid disaster tomorrow, says John Frank, managing partner of Actoras Consulting Group in Indianapolis. Begin by divvying up responsibility for the vital business functions: for example, Joe handles all financial issues, Laura oversees legalities, Tom controls supplier issues. "If the IRS audits you or someone offers to merge businesses, you know exactly where to find the paperwork and who can explain the issue best," Frank says. It also prevents duplicating efforts.

  • Socialize together. Get to know one another and establish rapport.

  • Establish ground rules for accessibility: Who, besides the supervisor, will have to carry a beeper or cell phone to be accessible for quick questions and decisions? Will there be a certain day of the week or month, or a certain time of day, when everyone (or a subgroup) always should be available for a teleconference? Deciding to use calendar software that integrates personal and team schedules will enable every team member to know when every other team member is available for a "meeting." Establishing a way to show what time of day each participant is most likely to be available will forestall a lot of phone tag. The information can be included in an online directory of team members, or they can agree to include the information on their personal Web pages.

  • Establish your system for tracking projects. Scheduling tasks is especially important for a distributed work group. The right software will make it possible to distribute tasks evenly, keep everybody contributing, and assure that scheduled days off and vacations cause minimal delays. Emphasize at the startup meeting that many workers will have to learn to discipline themselves in new ways to accomplish tasks under deadline without the spur of frequent casual encounters with the boss or teammates.

  • Make sure each team member knows what he or she is responsible for and what deadlines are especially important.

Plan to meet in person again at least a couple of times per year; if possible at critical decision times and times when there's a major accomplishment to celebrate.

Infrastructure

Be sure the necessary hardware and software is in place for communication:

  • A team Web site or group project software message center for general information.

  • E-mail and voice-mail guidelines, for example, using voice communication for the most important messages only, and indicating the priority of e-mail messages in their subject lines.

  • A chat room or discussion forum for sharing personal information and general comments.

  • Video or teleconference meeting facilities.

  • The necessary hardware and software installed at each work site. Documentation should specify whether the company will reimburse the employee or pay directly for added home-office telecommunications services, such as extra phone or fax lines and cable, Digital Subscriber Line, or some other high-speed means of access to the Internet.

  • A tech support system that provides rapid service to remote workers.

Make sure each team member is an adept user of whatever application software and communications equipment they will be using. If there's any doubt at all, arrange for training.

Human Resources Planning

A supervisor who reviews remote employee performance fairly for determining compensation and promotion will have to override the tendency to appreciate the visible work done by on-site employees more than the work done by employees that are out of sight. Any employee who perceives that workers not in daily contact with their supervisors don't get full credit for their accomplishments will be reluctant to accept a future remote assignment.

Document what's expected — both for supervisors and workers. Both should understand that the supervisor must track each team member's contributions and make frequent notes on progress and accomplishments. Evaluation criteria should be the same for on-site and off-site employees. Are they available when teammates need them? Do they meet performance standards? Does their work meet quality standards, and do they meet task and objective deadlines?

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

George Metes, Ph.D., admits he didn't set out to operate a virtual company. But after participating in the design of groupware for Digital Corp. (a forerunner to Lotus Notes), he understood technology's power to change the future … if only companies could clear the cultural hurdles to use it to their advantage. He took an early retirement package and formed a consulting firm to address how to learn business skills through the Internet.

As he landed new clients, Metes needed wider expertise. He called on buddies in England to collaborate, brainstorm and share the profits. Today an elastic group of experts from around the globe customize in-house training programs that introduce managers to effective virtual work set-ups under the Virtual Learning Systems umbrella. The group also developed a set of commercial learning modules known as "Working by Wire."

"When I have a vision of a service or project, I break it into competencies," Metes says. "I'm not thinking of job titles. I list the knowledge I need to pull together to get this to happen." He then brings the appropriate players together physically to discuss the ground rules for the project.

He maintains strong networking ties to grab a competency on a moment's notice. It's easier — and more cost effective &mdash ; to phone an astrophysicist to talk through a problem for $500 an hour than to hire one full time. He even established an electronic bulletin board for partners to pass along details of their networking moments in a virtual water cooler attempt to keep information and camaraderie flowing.

He also insists other partners keep an electronic document on each task they do rather than print it out and distribute copies. (He only prints at the stage when a customer needs the paperwork.) "The longer you keep anything on line, the more flexibility you have to tinker and update efficiently," Metes notes.

DO IT [top]

  1. Update information technology policies and procedures so the infrastructure features listed above can be put in place without delay when they are needed.

  2. If you don't have an up-to-date comprehensive personnel handbook, start someone working on it. A good policy manual will help prevent company policy violations because of forgotten details. It also will make the remote employees feel more secure and in control of their situations.

  3. Establish guidelines for recording and reporting hours worked, sick time, and vacation days from off-site.

  4. Establish a policy saying who is responsible for purchasing, installing and maintaining hardware and software in telecommuters' home offices.

  5. Make sure your employee expense-reporting and reimbursement system is streamlined to minimize the financial burden on remote workers when they have to purchase expensive equipment and supplies.

  6. Rethink whatever standards your company has for project management. If you normally control work flow with Gantt charts or a PERT system, consider whether what you use now can just be put online for access by team members in remote locations, or will it need to be replaced by more specialized software.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Distance Manager: A Hands-On Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams, by Kimball Fisher and Mareen Duncan Fisher (McGraw-Hill, 2001).

Going Virtual: Moving Your Organization into the 21st Century, by George Metes and Ray Grenier (Prentice Hall Canada, 1996).


Internet Sites

Journal articles

"Virtual Corporations, Human Issues & Information Technology." Training & Development (February 1, 1997). An interview with Dr. Yogesh Malhotra.

"Put the Web to Work for You," by Gina Imperato. Fast Company (April 2000): 388+

"Real Tools for Virtual Teams," by Gina Imperato. Fast Company (July 2000): 378+

"No Workers, No Offices: The Virtual Company," by Mark Roberti. Industry Standard 4:10 (March 12, 2001), 78. LookSmart's FindArticles.

"Chairman of the Keyboard," by William Pape. Inc. (September 15, 1998): 23-24.

Cultivating a Company in Cyberspace, by Hal Barbour. EntreWorld.org

Connection Without the Face-to-Face, by Debbie Levitt. EntreWorld.org


Article Contributors

Writer: Richard Blue and Julie Sturgeon

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