Can you see an office-less company in your future? Estimates of how many people telecommute and how often they do it vary widely, but the result is the same: telework is growing rapidly.
According to the research firm Forrester, more than 34 million U.S. adults telecommute occasionally and an estimated 63 million will do so by 2016. The latest American Community Survey data reveals that some 2.8 million American workers — or just over 2% of the working population — consider home their primary place of work (the data excludes self-employed or unpaid volunteers). Meanwhile, the number of people working from home at least one day a month, according to WorldatWork Telework Trends, grew from 9.5 million in 1999 to 17.2 million in 2008.
The numbers, though varied, all point to one immutable fact: the workplace of the future is our home.
What's behind the accelerating trend? Based on the number of articles on blogs, questions on LinkedIn discussion boards, and a recent report on telecommuting in Inc. magazine, going virtual is a decision many CEOs and owners are wrestling with. It seems that the convergence of technology, a changing workforce and recession that forced most companies to look for new ways to cut costs enticed many executives and business owners to take a hard look at taking their company virtual.
The most tantalizing and obvious benefit of going virtual is significant savings: no rent, no building maintenance, no fees, no real estate taxes. Getting rid of the office and working remotely also has appeal to younger workers, new parents and contract workers. It is also better for the planet.
But eliminating the costs of owning, renting and maintaining an office has a blinding appeal if the CEO/business owner doesn’t have his eyes wide open.
I was one of those business owners who took the plunge into the depths of the virtual business world a few months ago. For the record, I had been the teleworker in my business for the previous six years. For those six years, my employees went to work in an office — and I worked remotely. When it came time to renew the lease, my employees and I evaluated several alternative office locations including staying put. But after very little deliberation, they opted to work from home. The decision was made. My business would become office-less.
All-in-all, we have no regrets. In fact, the transition was virtually uneventful (pun intended!), barring a few technology hurdles and hitches. But compared to over a dozen moves during the past three decades — a combination of business and residential — going virtual was a piece of cake.
Despite the rosy picture I’ve painted, I will be the first to point out that a virtual business is not for everyone. Based on my experiences, I recommend management, partners and employees consider the following questions.
1. Have all the senior managers, owners and/or partners worked virtually before? If not, I'd encourage everyone to take the next 30 or more days to work from home and see how it works. Spending your entire adult life working in an office causes you to develop habits, such as eating lunch with co-workers or scheduling meetings to break up the day. Working from home disrupts the routine. You may like it or hate it. If the decision to go virtual is already a done deal, this time will give management the opportunity to work out the technical glitches and emotional hiccups.
2. Do the same thing for your employees. Even if you provide the technology for everyone to work virtually, not all your employees may be disciplined enough or comfortable enough to do so. In other words, do you have the right people in place to do this? In addition, do the employees have space for a home office or will they be forced to use the kitchen table? What about office furniture and equipment? Who will provide it and where will they put it?
3. How will you hold out-of-sight employees accountable? Even if your employees don’t always get along in the traditional office space, a co-worker or manager is only a few steps away from a face-to-face meeting when it comes time to work out a disagreement, adjust priorities, mentor an employee or collaborate on a project. When everyone is working remotely, you have altered roles and responsibilities. Instead of employing a group of competent generalists, the expectation is now one based on specialists who are productive, efficient, and good at meeting deadlines without someone looking over their shoulder. Are your employees ready and able for this challenge?
4. When working remotely, high-speed connectivity is critical. Don’t assume every employee has the bandwidth capacity to work from home on a regular basis. In fact, some employees in rural or remote locations may be limited to dial-up or unreliable connectivity. Other workers may not have purchased the fastest Internet service package. Who will pay for the upgrades and monthly service fees? How will co-workers communicate with one another and with clients? Will they use home and/or mobile phones or will you (the employer) be setting up a VOIP (Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol) phone system? Where will your data be stored — on a server or in the cloud? In either case, how will employees access the data? Who will be responsible for setting up and maintaining the necessary technology in each employee’s home?
5. How will your customers react? Will a virtual home alter your "brand" or client's perception? Where will you hold client meetings? Will the neighbors, customers and competitors think you have gone out of business and going virtual is a prelude to shutting down the business altogether? If employees meet clients, prospects and vendors in their homes, will the setting be business-like enough for the guests?
6. Supervising employees in a virtual business opens up a quagmire of the unknown. Compliance with compensation, benefits and safety guidelines are still the responsibility of the employer. But OSHA and Fair Labor Standards Act are still based on the traditional workplace and predicated on a static work week. How will you hire and train new hires and develop current employees? How will you monitor hours worked? What about overtime? How will you handle a dismissal of a terminated employee? If terminated, how will you retrieve the equipment, furniture and data? It’s not like you can escort the employee out of their own home and pack up their belongings in a box.
It's my belief that many businesses will go virtual over the next few years. But I also believe that many will fail if the decision is driven by the allure of cost savings alone. The savings won't compensate for productivity loss and mismanagement due to human factors relating to working virtually and remotely.
Are you ready to go virtual?
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