Examining Virtual Work in Todayメs Workplace

Virtual work can be a win-win with the right employee, job, and manager, but it isnメt one-size-fits-all.

By Jill Attkisson, Global Insights and Innovations Research Leader, and Carol Sladek, Partner and Work-Life Consulting Leader, Aon Hewitt

Americans are working harder than ever before, with longer hours and increasing demands on their time. However, the halls of corporate America are empty. Where is everyone? Despite the recent edicts of Yahoo! and Best Buy requiring employees to stop telecommuting and come into the office, more employees are taking advantage of virtual work options. Technology and workplace flexibility programs have redefined how, when, and where work gets done. Virtual work extends what is possible in a workday by allowing employees to stay connected from anywhere and at any time. It’s about measuring results, not hours or face time, and it’s about recognizing diversity—in lifestyles, work styles, and priorities.

Virtual Work: Win-Win

According to Aon Hewitt’s SpecSummary database of more than 1,300 U.S. employers, 45 percent offer telecommuting, up from 7 percent in 1991. These arrangements vary from employer to employer, but generally allow an employee to work from home or an alternate location for some or all of the workweek on a regularly scheduled basis.

Virtual work can be a win-win scenario for employees and employers. For employees, the work-life paradigm has shifted. Increasing demands in our lives and advances in technology mean there is no longer a solid line dividing work and life. Blending—not balancing—makes it all work. Most virtual employees are grateful for the blurred line and respond with higher productivity, engagement, and commitment to their work.

From the employer’s point of view, virtual work is largely about talent management. Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse, with abundant gender, ethnic, and generational diversity. Increasing global competition is driving the need for availability 24/7, and employers need to keep their eye on keeping high performers. The benefits from virtual work can be significant, including higher engagement and retention, ability to recruit from a more diverse talent pool, and reduced office space.  

Avoiding the Roadblocks

If virtual work arrangements are a win-win, why aren’t more employers embracing them? Several roadblocks keep employers from making virtual work programs a success. However, if addressed early, these programs can be effective for all parties.

  1. Can managers effectively manage their teams wherever they are? Manager attitudes can hinder virtual work programs. Here, it is all about trust. In many companies, the prevailing attitude among managers is employees who aren’t in the office aren’t working. Additionally, managers are accustomed to treating employees with a one-size-fits-all mentality and do not have the skills to determine employees best suited for virtual work. Managers are the foot soldiers in making virtual work a success. Providing them with training and tools to manage effectively is crucial, yet only a small percentage of employers provide formal training on how to approach, evaluate, and manage virtual work arrangements.
  2. Does the company have formal guidelines in place to help managers/employees evaluate the selection process, or is it offered on an ad hoc basis? In many organizations, virtual work is offered on more of an accidental than deliberate basis. While nearly half of major U.S. employers offer virtual work, the vast majority of arrangements are not widespread or consistently practiced throughout the organization. Formal guidelines for developing and evaluating a virtual work arrangement are often nonexistent. Instead, they are offered at the manager’s discretion and created for an employee’s individual circumstances. Creating virtual work guidelines offers a consistent approach across the organization and provides managers with criteria for evaluating individuals and their performance.  
  3. Has the organization assessed that roles/employees in which are able to deliver high performance in a virtual environment? Not every role lends itself to a virtual work arrangement, and not every employee can perform well in a virtual environment. High-performing employees tend to perform even better when working virtually, while virtual work rarely improves the work of a poor performer. Without collaboration tools, many organizational roles could not be performed effectively in a virtual arrangement. Guidelines for managers to follow in selecting the right jobs and the right employees for virtual work are critical.
  4. How does our organization drive collaboration and innovation, and what tools do we have to encourage collaboration for those working virtually? One of the downsides of telecommuting is that virtual employees often feel isolated. Do virtual employees have adequate opportunity to collaborate? Consider what tools might encourage better teamwork both in and out of the office. Collaboration tools are improving and can keep employees connected across virtual and in-office environments in real time.
  5. How could employee engagement and retention be impacted by a discontinuation of virtual work? The ability to work from home is a key engagement and retention factor for most employees who have these arrangements, and a change in policy would be a major disruption to them. Indeed, some high-performing employees may see this discontinuation as a breakdown in trust, and turnover could increase as these employees look for opportunities elsewhere. These top performers may be part of key groups that organizations are actively trying to improve inclusion (e.g., women and Millennials). In fact, ending telecommuting options entirely goes against workplace trends and preferences among workers and isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.

The Future of Virtual Work

If virtual work arrangements are to be successful, organizations need to offer them on a consistent and deliberate basis. Virtual work can be a win-win with the right employee, job, and manager, but it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Managers and employees need to be educated to make the right choices and to evaluate these arrangements on an ongoing basis, and senior leaders need to value and support a virtual work environment. Only then will the organization reap the rewards of attracting, engaging, and retaining a high-performing workforce.

Jill Attkisson is the global insights and innovations research leader at Aon Hewitt. She specializes in talent management and organization effectiveness solutions. 

Carol Sladek is a partner and work-life consulting leader of Aon Hewitt. Sladek specializes in work-life, time off, diversity, and emerging workforce strategy, issues, and developments.  

Aon Hewitt is a global leader in human resource solutions. The company partners with organizations to solve their most complex benefits, talent, and related financial challenges, and improve business performance. Aon Hewitt designs, implements, communicates, and administers a wide range of human capital, retirement, investment management, health-care, compensation, and talent management strategies. With more than 29,000 professionals in 90 countries, Aon Hewitt makes the world a better place to work for clients and their employees. For more information on Aon Hewitt, visit www.aonhewitt.com.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.