Is anybody out there? Effective techniques for managing a virtual workforce.


The glorious dream of teleworking will soon be realized by thousands of office goers. With any luck, much of the virtual workforce will be released from their three or four hours a day in the car or train and be delivered to true productivity. Though many employers maintain their resistance to the inevitability of a virtual workforce, it’s actually in their best interest to get workers out of the office and online.

Not only are teleworkers more productive, they’re happier—most would even take a moderate pay cut just to work from home. That equals money if you’re an old-timey manager, and it adds up. According to Global Workplace Analytics, ‘Half-time home-based work could save employers over $10,000 per employee per year – the result of increased productivity, reduced facility costs, lowered absenteeism, and reduced turnover.’ Never mind the 15 days and thousands of dollars employees sacrifice just to get to and from the office.

Does all this mean that managers should blow into work tomorrow and send everyone home forever?

No. But it is time to get the revolution started. That means addressing the number one stereotype plaguing managers, CEOs and HR cronies who have yet to see the light; people who work from home are taking advantage. Many managers have long associated teleworking with PJs, Oprah and eating cereal from the box.

Again we must turn to Global Workplace Analytics. ‘Unscheduled absences cost employers billions. 78% of employees who call in sick, really aren’t. Whatever reason they’re away from work, they require staffing redundancies, they inconvenience coworkers and customers, and they reduce productivity. Telework has proven to be the second most effective method of reducing absences (flexible scheduling is first).’

Just like before, fit is everything

Sometimes, a slightly less qualified person is selected for a job because they are a better fit with the project or the team or even the manager. And fit is just as important when staffing a virtual workforce. Enthusiastic self-starters with a proven track record of working with minimal supervision over the long term are likelier to succeed in a virtual workforce environment. There’s a reason the PJ-Oprah-Cereal stereotype exists and it’s because some folks just don’t have the discipline.

Resist the urge to launch

Big projects like building a new website or sending everyone home to do their jobs are generally marked by a big fancy project launch. This is a virtual workforce fail. Take it slow by transitioning a few employees a few days a week over a few months. This will give everyone time to adjust and gradually address the process kinks and communication bugs.

Build useful performance measures and measure often

Annual or biannual performance reviews usually have more to do with handing out raises and firing people than they do with actual performance. Setting crystal clear expectations around working hours, employee availability and attending team meetings upfront are central to virtual workforce success. Identify the variables that indicate great performance and measure them on a regular basis. Client satisfaction surveys, project completion rates, sales numbers and other employee outputs can at last stand in place of a watchful manager.

With a virtual workplace like that performance could once again actually mean something.