How Do You Manage a Virtual Workforce?

I recently had the honor of speaking to an amazing group of female insurance executives in picfornewsletterNew York City. Prior to speaking, one of AIG’s C-suite leaders, the only male in the room, discussed recruiting and retention challenges for females in the insurance industry including the virtual workforce.

One of the methods being tested to attract and retain more women is the ability to work remotely. The reasons for this are simple – selfishly for the corporation, remote work cuts down on real estate costs and saves money and, unselfishly, the employees value avoiding the commute to the office, reduced expenses on  business attire and parking and, most importantly, the ability to have increased personal time.

After he finished, someone shared that she had been working remotely for several years and she was struggling. She missed the interaction and collaboration that happens in an office. Several women joined in the discussion stating that while they would not trade working remotely, and appreciated the ability to do so, they too missed the collaboration and team spirit working in an office can provide.

Given the increasing virtual workforce, up 80% from 2005 with almost half of all organizations (publicly and privately owned) using virtual teams – how do we successfully manage, motivate and engage the virtual team?

  • First, we don’t manage a virtual team like an in-office team. They are two different animals – apples and oranges.
  • Recruit to retain talent. Know yourself – and know your employees before you hire them. Over and over leaders and managers of virtual teams state the importance of evaluating soft skills and fit for virtual work. Use assessments like Shadowmatch to evaluate potential for success in virtual work.
  • Communicate, build shared purpose and use processes that support and enable success virtually. Listen, support and reinforce. Clearly define team goals as well as individual goals.
  • Provide training for new virtual team members.
  • Plan at least one in-person team building event per year. Corporate retreats, team weekends, educational enrichment – no matter the reason – get the team together.
  • Use technology that enables spontaneous communication and document sharing, tools like instant messaging, Sharepoint and electronic bulletin boards.
  • Make work personal – highlight successes of individuals, share personal stories and backgrounds.
  • Make frequent use of videoconferencing allowing virtual team members to see each other.
  • Implement a “Wow” program, enabling and encouraging virtual employees to send small gifts for collaboration, encouragement and reward.
  • If you have virtual teams in the same geography, host a monthly “Tasty Tuesday” and meet in person for lunch. Our Mom Corps Dallas team does this and we love it!
  • Celebrate birthdays, baby showers and work anniversaries with personal well wishes from team members using email, social media or video conference calls.

Virtual work is here to stay. Forrester Research’s U.S. Telecommuting Forecast notes by 2016 more than 63 million Americans will work from homeThat’s 43% of the U.S. workforce.

Virtual work is a good business decision. According to a recent The Wall Street Journal story, businesses that allowed employees to work remotely at least three times a month were more likely to grow revenue at least 10 percent over the last 12 months, compared to companies who kept employees in the office.

Bottom line – virtual work does work.