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How Work is Changing: The Virtual and Mobile Workforce


Posted by on July 26, 2010

The way we work has changed dramatically over the past few years.  I’m relatively young…turning 27 in a few weeks – yet even I can recall working for previous employers where there was just no way of getting things done without being present in the same location as my team (probably because for my first serious job I was occasionally asked to get coffee, can’t do that virtually…).   Today I think it’s safe to say that a majority of the tasks that an individual needs to complete can be done just as effectively sitting on a beach in Maui as they can sitting in a cubicle.  Furthermore, the traditional work hours of 9-5 are becoming more and more irrelevant.  One of the things that frustrated me the most when going into an office during a particular time was that just because someone told me that I needed to work from 9-5 doesn’t mean I that I could.  Like most people I have ideas and am more productive at various parts of the day; sometimes I get an idea at the gym, sometimes I get an idea in the shower, and sometimes I get an idea at 11pm at night – I don’t think 9-5 and neither do most people.  I also have a very interesting and dynamic workday.  Sometimes I like to go to the gym mid afternoon and sometimes I like to work late and sleep in during the morning.

According to an article from the Sunday Times in 2009, “Working nine to five, what an archaic way to make a living. Recent research by Microsoft shows that 78% of people believe that traditional office hours no longer exist — and some forward-thinking companies are even dispensing with the office itself.”

Current economic conditions are also propelling the virtual workforce initiative forward as it helps reduce overall operating costs.  An article on CNN also highlights the value of virtual meetings and discusses new initiatives by Second Life to service this new virtual workforce.  In my Enterprise 2.0 series on Intuit the organization mentioned that they are actively encouraging virtual work and are in fact now calling it “flexible work spaces.”

Tools such as Box.net, Yammer, Skype, and Gdocs (and probably hundreds of others) all allow you to do everything from host video conferences, to collaborate on documents, update the company on what you are working on, chat in real time (via text, voice, or video), share files – pretty much anything you can think of.  The challenge however is that while the tools are available, their successful use and adoption is ultimately what is going to drive and encourage a virtual or “flexible” workspace.  As Intuit puts it, the tools they have deployed allow employees to work from anywhere while still giving them the feeling that they are part of the team and collaborating – just as if they were sitting next to each other.

Most virtual technology solutions are also accessible via mobile devices, in fact many software solutions build specific apps so that employees can access all of their information via mobile phone.  Mobile phones are pretty much becoming small laptops and you can do almost anything on these devices. Here’s an interesting report by Pew which highlights some interesting internet, broadband, and mobile stats.

The reality is that today we have a very mobile and virtual workforce.

Working virtually is much easier for smaller organizations since there is just less to deal with in terms of adoption, employees, legal, and overall barriers.  Trust in a virtual workforce is also crucial.  If someone wants to work virtually from Maui then the expectations of that employee getting their work done, doesn’t change.  It only takes a few negative experiences to convince a large organization to disallow any type of virtual work.

I think there are a few things that are crucial for a successful virtual workforce.

Trust

As I mentioned above you have to feel confident that the guy in Maui is getting his job done and doing so just as if he were working at the office

Tools

The entire virtual workforce movement is supported by a host of technology platforms that all cater to a specific need.  For example Box.net is great at sharing files and information with employees.  Skype is perfect for 1-on-1 video or voice meetings.  Yammer is great at connecting an entire organization and updating employees on who is working on what.  The challenge around tools is making sure that they can be integrated with one another when relevant, that employees know which tools they have access to and how to use them.

Accountability/productivity

Employees have to remain accountable for the work that they need to do and productivity cannot suffer in the process.  Of course if an organization notices that accountability and productivity begins to decrease then you can kiss virtual work goodbye.

Governance

There need to be some rules and guidelines in place for this.  For example if a client proposal is due tomorrow is it still ok for the team to work from home?  Should employees be allowed to take conference calls from home?  Simple examples I know, but there need to be some sort of guidelines in place at least initially to make this work.

Security

This is a big one.  Making sure that information employees access from a remote location is secure and private is a huge concern for organizations.  Working from an office space, the organization has much more control over access so somehow this needs to be negotiated with IT.

Here’s a great post from Telecommuter on best practices for telecommuting for fortune 500 companies that I also recommend you read. For another interesting read check out Productivity 2.0: How the New Rules of Work Are Changing the Game.  The point is that we are moving towards a mobile and virtual work force and we now have the tools and technologies in place to support that, but as we learned tools and technology only get you so far without having a solid strategy in place for making everything work.

Here’s a great example of a large organization (Cognizant) manages and encourages virtual work, thanks to Prem Kumar for the tip!

Ask yourself if your organization can be just as productive if it allowed for a virtual workforce and let me know what you think in the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/juliebhunt Julie Hunt

    Hi Jacob,
    Thanks for providing these good points on the value of virtual workers – I'm definitely a believer in changing how people get work done so they can be engaged by the work and productive for the enterprise.

    A big factor in the success of an enterprise transitioning to virtual workers is the conscious implementation of large internal cultural changes that must take place: where everyone accepts and understands this type of work. Enterprises must purposefully incorporate virtual workers as part of overall business strategy, which will hopefully set into motion new cultural practices that benefit workers and the enterprise's competitiveness. These enterprises will also be more successful if true collaboration cultures become part of the company DNA.

    As you point out, we've got lots and lots of tech tools – now it's up to enterprises to take care of the “people side” of virtual workplaces.

    Cheers,
    Julie Hunt
    @juliebhunt

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi July,

      There definitely needs to be a coordinated conscious effort to make this happen across the enterprise. However, small pockets of use are springing up all over the place.

  • Amy

    Jacob,
    I enjoy reading your blog. I have it e-mailed to me whenever you post something new because you have such great information. These are great points about things to consider when using a virtual workforce. I work in a virtual job, so I can totally relate. Many companies get around the productivity issue by paying for a contracted set of tasks that will be done each day or each week or month. They have accountability by requiring updates to be sent by e-mail to track your progress daily or weekly. That way, you make sure that the work is being done and that the virtual worker is accountable to someone on a regular basis.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      You are too kind, thanks so much for the kind words, very much appreciated :)

  • Ron_Burns

    You mentioned how “the entire virtual workforce is supported by a host of technology platforms that all cater to a specific need.” This is certainly true, but I would also tie this back to something you had mentioned earlier in the post, “successful use and adoption is ultimately what is going to drive and encourage a virtual or ‘flexible’ workspace.” Many times having to use several different platforms is what kills adoption for employees. They become frustrated when having to switch between multiple programs to achieve what should be one simple task, but are forced to use one program for sharing docs, another for VoiP, another for text/chat etc. I think the trend we are seeing with companies instituting virtual workplaces will continue to increase. But I think that in order for these companies to encourage employee adoption, they will need to choose platforms that have the necessary tools for effective communication and collaboration integrated, rather than trusting essential business functions to several disparate and free tools on the internet.

    Ron Burns
    CEO ProtonMedia
    http://blog.protonmedia.com

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi Ron,

      Absolutely. This is actually the largest hurdle to overcome for any type of internal employee collaboration initiatives. Tools and technology are out there and can do all sorts of neat things. However, if employees don't use those tools then it really doesn't matter what you throw in front of them. I think the best place to start is developing a thorough set of use cases and business/technology requirements, then matching the vendor that best meets those needs. 'Tis best to ask your employees what they do and how prior to deploying anything. Thanks again for the comment.

  • http://www.2seo.com/ Teena

    Great post and I totally agree with you. I handle my own time, I work at the comfort of my own home and I'm earning more than I do sitting in my own cubicle at the office. It's really changing and along with it comes a higher level of skills required to compete and get hired.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Thanks for the comment. It's certainly interesting to see how things have changed over just a few short years.

  • http://www.txtimpact.com/Text-Message-Marketing.asp text message marketing

    I hope you never stop! This is one of the best blog’s I’ve ever read. You’ve got some mad skill here, man. I just hope that you don’t lose your style because you’re definitely one of the coolest blogger’s out there. Please keep it up because the internet needs someone like you spreading the word.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/internetmarketingnickstamoulis Nick Stamoulis

    In my own organization I too agree with and follow the “Working nine to five, what an archaic way to make a living” motto. Giving my employees the flexibility to work virtually rather than a set schedule in the office has proved to be a positive for me. I myself don't work 9-5 my work day is usually scattered and yes I do find myself sometimes logging on at 10:00 to jot down an idea for a client. The way we work has evolved so much in the past 5 years, that if you aren't willing to be flexible it could hurt you. The biggest issue I had to overcome was trusting that my employees are actually working, but as long as the work is coming in completed, in the quality expected, things run smoothly.

  • Albion Colt

    In the global marketplace, people can work practically anywhere
    and anytime. Managing the Mobile Workforce shares stories
    about organizations that have taken the risk to unleash-literally. But it
    becomes difficult to manage sometimes whether it is going on the right
    direction or not or will give a full filled success or not. That’s why it is
    said that work is changing the virtual and mobile workforce.
     

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  • Anna

    Thanks. I congratulate you for this blog. I’ve really enjoyed. I
    sincerely thank you again.

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