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Are Your Employees Cut Out for Virtual Work?

by
Ira Wolfe
Jun 28, 2011, 5:50 am ET

Telecommuting can attract and retain employees. It can even save you money. But not all employees or companies are cut out for virtual work.

Providing the tools and technology are easy. The tough question an employer must answer is: how do we hire and manage the right teleworker?

Like employees who fill every other job, some workers are natural fits, while others seem to be the square peg forced into a round hole. Telecommuting requires different skills than working out of an office, even if the job responsibilities and requirements are exactly the same.

Recent research out of Global Integration Inc. identified the traits of successful virtual workers and telecommuters. The most successful virtual workers are self-reliant and self-motivated. That sounds like the perfect fit for an ambitious introvert, but the “lone wolf” tends not to perform very well on virtual teams. Having the knack of keeping things to themselves is not a virtue of the virtual team member. Effective virtual work teams require interdependency on others. So while self-reliance and self-motivation are critical success traits, the employee must also appreciate the need to collaborate and willingness to share common goals and responsibilities.

The ability to deal with ambiguity is another critical personality trait. People who like fixed schedules, explicit instructions, and predictability won’t generally perform very well in the virtual work setting. Virtual work requires independent thought and a willing to take initiative. That means sometimes the employee will make a mistake or go off in the wrong direction. Effective virtual workers can’t wait for every instruction or wait to be told what to do.

But both the manager and employee must acknowledge that taking initiative has risks, and that personal accountability and accepting responsibility are must-have characteristics. Employees who take feedback and criticism personally will struggle if not fail when working far from the maddening crowd.

Communication skills are also must-have job skills. Since much of the interaction a virtual worker does is verbal and written, not visual or face-to-face, he must have the ability to draft easy-to-understand and to-the-point communications. While dealing with ambiguity is a working style asset for the telecommuter, it can be a liability when it comes to communicating with others.

While offering flex time and telecommuting as an employee retention strategy has significant benefit, not all candidates or current employees can make the transition. The onus for selecting the right candidates to work from home falls upon the employer, and more specifically, human resources.

Obviously one good indicator might be experience. Has the employee worked remotely before? What were the circumstances? How effective was he or she? Was this a full-time virtual position or was the employee allowed to work from home just a day or two a week? What were his/her responsibilities? Did both the candidate and employer benefit from the arrangement, or just the worker? If the manager had an opportunity to re-hire this person again, would telecommuting even be an option they would offer?

Unfortunately most workers don’t have a solid track record on working virtual. An estimated 2.9 million employees worked primarily from home in 2009, while as many as 33.7 million worked from home at least once a month. The requirements to work remotely every day versus only on the days your child is sick or the weather is bad are vastly different. So how can an employer identify employees and candidates who are cut out for virtual work and telecommuting if past experience is not a factor?

Personality tests offer a reliable indicator of job fit for the virtual worker. Referring back to the Global Integration research I mentioned earlier, self-reliance, self-motivation, flexibility, collaborative tendencies, dealing with ambiguity, criticism tolerance, multitasking, and task closure (follow-through) are all traits and characteristics that can be assessed using a validated pre-employment assessment test. While the results of such a personality assessment are not conclusive (nor should they ever be used as the only hiring indicator), they are very accurate at identifying the high-risk candidates. And should the manager offer telecommuting as a work option, the results of many employee assessment offer insight about how best to manage, develop, and mentor the employee.

Fortune’s 2011 list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” offer telecommuting opportunities to employees. The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey reports an increase of employees who worked from home of 61 percent from 2005. With more and more companies struggling to find and retain qualified workers as well as manage costs, the number of virtual workers is sure to rise. But as with every job, not every worker is qualified to fill the position. Companies must add the ability to work virtually to their list of job competencies and be able to assess accurately the candidate’s ability or potential. Otherwise, the advantages of employing virtual workers will quickly be outweighed by lost productivity and turnover.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Stephanie McDonald

    It’s interesting – as a remote worker, I’m always envied for my lifestyle. People picture me lounging in pajamas all day, feet up and relaxed.

    It’s actually nothing like that. Well, I do work in my pajamas but it’s because I’m working before it’s light outside and occasionally answering my phone after dark. The rest of the day I’m dressed like a normal person.

    I also miss having co-workers physically around me to bounce ideas off of, blow off steam with, and just generally learn from.

    It does take a special kind of person to work in a remote environment. I know it’s not for everyone, despite how much people might envy my situation, it’s not terribly fun. I can promise that my office based co-workers are having more fun at the company BBQ’s every Friday, heading out to the ice cream truck and going out for a drink after work.

  2. Ritvik Bhawan

    This is an interesting article and more so, because in a workforce fast becoming more widespread and globally located, the traditional definition of a telecommuter is changing. Now, we have to deal with the challenge of a Virtual worker, who is able to log in from anywhere in the world, and provided access to basic infrastructure, is able to lead teams and manage projects.
    As we analyse the working styles of the current workforce, there is an inherent familiarity to collaboration tools, multitasking and handle ambiguity to an extent which was not possible even 10 years ago. These factors along with a growing comfort with talent sourced across the globe, virtual teams are becoming a way for companies to become great.

  3. Sylvia Dahlby

    Excellent article. As an early adopter of telecommuting, I have long been an advocate of telework – but have also warned repeatedly that telecommuting is not for everyone and poses some interesting career challenges. This article is old but still valid http://www.45things.com/2009/10/could-telecommuting-be-career-mistake.php#comments – I listed 6 reasons why telecommuting may not be a good idea. I am glad that more & more employers are open to telework, at least part time – and I believe that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages for many types of workers.

  4. Kaitlin Wap

    Very interesting. Sometimes I wonder how much time we lose by telecommunicating when we could actually be getting real work done! I’ll be sharing this article with all of my employees, thanks for sharing.

  5. Stephanie McDonald

    I find it’s very productive, if you manage yourself. I don’t have interruptions like normal office staff, other than my phone, email, IM, or an occasional dog wanting to be on my lap, which I’ve learned to manage.

  6. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Ira. I’d like to propose a different question:
    (For those that don’t deal with the direct physical manipulation of objects):
    “Are Your Employees Cut Out for Onsite Work?”
    In other words, instead of assuming people work onsite and justify why they should be virtual, assume “knowledge workers” work virtually and justify why they need to be onsite.

    Your thoughts, Folks…..

    Keith “*what Can’t Be Done by Skype or Telepresnce?” Halperin

    * I believe there ARE work-relevant activities which can’t- I just don’t know what they are.

  7. Leon Gettler: Telecommuting tips | Management Buzz

    [...] traits managers should look out for include the ability to deal with ambiguity – people who like [...]

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