Shedding light on virtual work in the 21st century

The pace of change continues to increase and with change comes new opportunities to align our organizations to 21st century realities.

In the 20th century organization, managers needed to physically see their employees to make sure they were working. In manufacturing jobs, employees had to come in to a physical space do their job and the biggest challenge communication departments faced, as technology started to emerge in workplaces, was how to get information to workers who were not sitting in front of a computer all day.

Today, we face new realities. It is no longer a question of how we get information to employees. Instead, it’s a question how we can get the right information to the right employee group at the right time. How do we make sure that people have the information they need to be effective in their jobs? This opens a whole new conversation around what is work and where does work actually take place.

Why it matters

Business leaders need to care about having a more collaborative and engaged workforce for two key reasons: More than 80 per cent of CEOs, in PricewaterhouseCooper’s 2014 global CEO survey, identified “technological advances” — such as the digital economy, social media, mobile devices and big data — as the number one trend transforming businesses globally. CEOs are becoming increasingly aware that technology is a differentiator that can enable their business and also keep them in business.

The second reason is the future of work is here, and what is coming will require leaders to make substantive changes in how we work. Just take a minute to think about the following facts that will impact the workplace:

  • By 2025, there will be a deficit of 40 million skilled workers in the developed world and a surplus of one billion workers in the developing world. Projections of 2025 GDP growth and talent show growth coming from countries like Ghana and the Czech Republic, for example.
  • In 11 years, 40 per cent of the workforce in the U.S. will be contingent. It is not just the economy pushing people out to become free agents – an increasing number of professionals are choosing to work for themselves and this trend will increase as the younger generation enters the workforce. They are seeking autonomy over their work and flexibility on many levels.
  • At the same time, in 2025, 70 per cent of the workforce will be millennial. This is the first time in the history of work where we have five different generations working side by side, all with different needs and definitions of what work means. What happens when the workforce is comprised of a generation that wants flexibility in how they work?

While technology changes the game, it takes leaders to define new realities

Technology can help change the game , but it all starts with leaders who have a vision of where they want to take their business. Around that, they can build a business model that allows people to work virtually. Increasingly, surveys show us that employees are dissatisfied with the tools and platforms at work. In a recent study by Accenture, 51 per cent of employees said they were dissatisfied with their enterprise IT department and 44 per cent were dissatisfied with the devices and software provided by their employer.

I personally gave up my office at Cisco in 2003 since I spent more time flying than in the office. I learned I could work from anywhere and was far more productive remotely than coming to an office everyday, especially since I had a global job with crazy hours. Work meant collaborating with other people and delivering on a joint purpose. It was no longer where it took place, but how it happened and the impact it had in terms of bottom line results. I worked with leaders who understood employees could be location independent.

Here are four good rules of thumb for businesses considering allowing their employees to work remotely:

1) Help people be connected to their work.

The organization needs to provide work tools that are as easy and intuitive to use as today’s consumer apps. They should allow us to be connected to each other and access people and information easily. These tools should be accessible and easy to adopt without hours of training. People adopt tools that are valuable to them and make their life easier.

2) Allow people to work from anywhere.

For those roles that are more flexible, allow people to work anywhere, any time on any device. Put in the policies and performance metrics to ensure they are delivering results, but enable people to contribute from anywhere.

3) Turn on video cameras.

A myth is the belief that we can only connect with people when we are in the same physical location. Video changes that reality. When people turn their video cameras on and have a virtual meeting, they are face-to-face. There is so much that can happen to our work if only we turned the video on and focused on the conversations we needed to have. Video is the most underutilized tool at the disposal of many organizations.

4) Understand that people want to be connected, especially in a global environment.

When you have more than one location, you are already engaging in virtual work connecting people in different locations and it does not matter if they are working from a remote site. Think about how easy it is to find traffic reports or weather conditions, and how difficult it is for employees to find the information they need to be to be effective in their jobs. We need to find creative solutions to remove the barriers and not focus on where people are working from, but ensure they are contributing to the organization.

If you’re thinking about implementing this in your organization, some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does IT put your employees first? Do they have the ability to work from anywhere with tools that allow them to collaborate and drive productivity?
  • How mobile is your organization? Can people work anywhere with any device?
  • Are you enabling video conversations and connecting people to people?
  • Do you trust your employees to work anywhere and any time?
  • What barriers are blocking productivity? Who is removing them?
  • Do people want to come work for your organization? Are you ready for the future of work?

Imagine what would be possible in your organization if you had high trust and productivity. The power to work remotely brings both, but it takes the right management mindset, coupled with easy-to-use collaboration platforms, that allow for easy access of information and sharing. There is a real opportunity in a very concrete way to drive better bottom line performance for your organization.

Ayelet Baron
Ayelet Baron
Ayelet combines lessons learned from more than a decade as a high-tech industry executive with her roots as a researcher, change catalyst and strategic communicator. This rare blend of expertise enables her to assess and advise individuals and organizations that seek to embrace new ways of working. She helps leaders transform and build healthy and resilient organizations. She is also a sought after keynote speaker on collaboration, leadership and building 21st century organizations. Her award winning business book, Our Journey to Corporate Sanity, helps you navigate a new path for business as a conscious 21st century leader.

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