David F. Swink

Threat Management

The Virtual Workplace: Tips For Working From Anywhere

The joys and pains of telecommuting and working on customer sites

Posted Dec 27, 2011

Remote workers benefit by:

  • Saving Time: Employees spend less time commuting.  This is an enormous benefit, particularly in urban areas where commutes can be 1.5 hours each way.
  • Increasing Flexibility: Working from home allows employees to balance family responsibilities, educational opportunities and other important personal pursuits.

Organizations benefit by::

  • Increased employee productivity.
  • More work time coverage because of differing individual work preferences.  Some people like to work late at night and some like to work early in the morning.
  • Improved "hands on" customer service when work is delivered at a customer site.
  • Increased talent pool that is not limited by the geographical location of the employees. 

These benefits can also translate into increased retention of employees, and better customer relations, if managed effectively.

There are some challenges of remote work for employees that must be addressed to reap the benefits. In an MIT Sloan Management Review Article entitled, "Set Up Remote Workers to Thrive," Jay Mulki, Sleura Bardhi, Felicia Lassk, and Jayne Nanavaty-Dahl, address some of the challenges of remote work.  They focus on strategies that managers and organizations can use to address those challenges.  This blog will focus on strategies that the remote employee can implement to overcome the challenges and leverage the benefits of remote work.

Work-Life Balance Challenges

Mulki et al note that remote workers generally work longer hours because they often work during times they would have been commuting.  Remote employees may also have difficulty disengaging from work because they don't have the traditional boundaries between personal and workspace. Additionally, remote workers may work harder to prove themselves, because of lack of visibility, thus increasing their stress.

Left unaddressed, these challenges can result in employee burnout.  Organizations can address these challenges by developing effective remote work strategies and policies; however, employees, will need to develop some effective remote work-life balance practices themselves.

Work-Life Balance Strategies for the Remote Employee

  • Have an intentional discussion about the dynamics and practices of remote work with your supervisor and have her/him articulate expectations.
  • Ask your manager to prioritize your tasks so that you know which tasks are most important, otherwise, you may feel that everything is urgent.
  • Discuss expectations of communication practices. For example, when is it too late at night to call your supervisor or visa versa? This is particularly important when you work in different time zones from your boss, customer, or other team members.
  • Ask your employer to find ways to minimize time-consuming administrative tasks like having to mail or fax original copies of receipts and other forms.
  • If you work at home, set clear boundaries for yourself which define when you are working and when you are just "at home." This may include shutting down your computer or turning off your work cell phone during defined hours.

Social Isolation Challenges

Mulki et al report that employees who feel isolated often have lower engagement and job satisfaction leading to increased turnover. Because they can't just ask the person sitting next to them, the remote worker may not know where to get answers to important questions. Limited face to face networking can also negatively impact career opportunities.

Social isolation increases with perceived absence of support from managers.  This is frequently the case with overworked managers who manage many remote workers on several teams.

If the remote work is done on a customer site, the employee may "go native" and identify more with the customer's culture than one's own company culture.  This can result in conflicts of interest between customer needs and company business goals.

If the primary mode of communication with headquarters is electronic (email, chat, IM, etc.), this can create difficulty in developing personal relationships and trust with co-workers or customers because electronic messaging can be less efficient and accurate because of lack of informal social discourse and visual cues. 

The remote employee may not be aware of cross-functional business development opportunities across organization, because of lack of networking, and may miss out on important sales or customer service opportunities.

Social Isolation Prevention Strategies for the Employee

  • During your onboarding process or joining of a new team, introduce yourself to as many people as possible in person or during teleconferences, email, internal websites, etc.
  • Suggest that there be occasional check-ins on an informal social level during conference calls or one-on-one teleconferences.
  • Promote social interactions among team members through virtual water coolers (internal social network sites).
  • Look for opportunities to invite your manager to come to visit remote customer sites.
  • Seek out networks and mentors at your organization's headquarters.
  • Be knowledgeable about your company's products and services that are outside of your department or organizational group, so you can suggest those services to your customer when they need them.
  • Arrange face-to-face meetings as frequently as possible. Travel to organizational headquarters, if possible, and set up meetings with people that you would like to know better.
  • Take advantage of company training opportunities that occur at headquarters or online.
  • Use videoconferencing, Skype, and other visual media so other team members have some face to face interactions with you.
  • Keep up with company podcasts, newsletters, or other media that communicate company news and updates.
  • Recognize the nature of remote work and don't underestimate the amount of communication needed to feel part of the organization.

If you work remotely, don't be "out of site, out of mind."  Take responsibility to reach back to the "mother ship" and take advantage of networking, training, mentoring, and developing career opportunities.

If you have worked remotely or have managed remote workers, please share some of the challenges that you have faced and your strategies for making remote work effective.

For more information about how organizations can manage virtual teams, see my blog, Tips for Virtual Team Effectiveness.