Ensure a Successful Virtual Workplace

By Carmen P. Fleischauer, Citrix ShareFile
The popularity of virtual workspaces is increasing, and many companies see remote work options as a way to recruit and retain excellent employees and address officespace constraints. What does this mean for you?Is your business structure conducive to the changing landscape? Will employees be successful while working from home? If employees are able to work remotely, does that increase or decrease the cost of business?

A recent Telework Research Network report addresses some of the pain points surrounding working from home: “The biggest barrier to telecommuting, by a wide margin, is management fear and mistrust.”

The report explains that although some management may not be convinced of the concept, the evidence clearly shows that 45 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with working from home at least part time. The report states that of the 50 million U.S. employees who want to work from home and currently hold jobs where that is possible, only 2.9 million consider home their primary place of work. For the 2.9 million that work from home, the benefits outweigh the negatives. By working from home, those 2.9 million save 390 million gallons of gas and prevent the release of 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gases yearly. If all those people who could work at home did so at least 2.4 days a week (the national average for those who do), the reduction in greenhouse gases (51 million tons) would be equivalent to taking the entire New York workforce off the roads.

There are many reasons to support virtual work. But in order to create a successful virtual workplace, two considerations are key: You must communicate effectively, and you must be diligent about fostering remote relationships, which often requires the use of processes and tools.

How to approach virtual workspace

Approaching a virtual workspace with an open mind will ease the transition. Address possible challenges up front rather than waiting for them to happen. Learn the way remote employees prefer to communicate to effectively address topics and assign work. And be open to new ways of working, and new ideas for building relationships.

Pay attention to detail and initiate communication

Remote work means you can’t spontaneously check in with employees at their desks, so it is important for you to initiate communication via virtual routes. Many organizations have instant messaging systems you can use for quick questions or chit-chat. Keep in mind that words and tones can be misconstrued via email and IM communication. Read and re-read any and all communication for clarity before sending. If the topic is particularly sensitive, think about setting up a virtual meeting. That way your employee will be able to see your facial expressions and hear the tone of your voice. You will also be able to experience their initial response to the topic.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication is key to business—no matter where you work. But it becomes even more important when you are working virtually. Remote employees and their in-office counterparts should be fastidious about frequent communication. Schedule regular meetings to connect and update on projects. Even if you only meet a couple times a week, you will get in the habit of communicating how you are progressing. Frequent meetings with team members also ease the possible tension that can surround a virtual employee. As a manager, regular status reports from virtual employees will allow you to better understand their work styles. Remote employees who communicate frequently are able to prove their worth and show their manager as well as other team members they are an integral part of the organization.

Prevent and resolve misunderstandings

We have all been misunderstood at work, but how you address the breakdown in communication is key to successful resolution. It can be very frustrating to have your words misconstrued. First of all, don’t get upset; remember that communication via email and IM lacks voice inflection, and tone can be misrepresented. If someone misinterprets something you say, clearly restate your intended message and add as much clarification as necessary. Keep a level head and a pleasant tone during communication, especially if resolution includes a phone call or video conference. If you handle the first misunderstanding correctly, you will reduce overreaction in the future.

Use technology effectively

Now is the time to mindfully consider the benefit of video capability if you have not already done so. Most remote employees use laptops, which makes video conferencing very easy. It is also essential to install video components into at least one conference room in the main office. Video functionality makes it easier to connect with remote employees. Employees feel more connected, and voice inflection and tone are communicated correctly.

Connect outside work

Camaraderie is part of what makes an office setting dynamic. That can be built while working in teams, or just in “water cooler” conversations. Remote employees can also foster work relationships, it just takes more intentionality than is usually necessary. Plan to have your remote employees come into the office at least once a week if that is possible. On some of those days, it may be a good idea to plan a team lunch at a fun local restaurant. This will help to organically build relationships. If your employees live out of state, informal IM conversations can foster virtual relationships. Ask about your employees’ weekend, where they went to college or even talk about differences in the weather. This may seem trivial, but it can help to make everyone feel more connected. Conversations that begin by talking about the weekend can transition into more meaningful topics.

Processes and tools to make working virtually possible

What will it take for your team to have success in a virtual environment? Although communication is the most important part of a virtual workspace, there are practical steps that must be taken to achieve an optimal virtual working atmosphere.

Secure, password-protected Internet

One of the first major requirements of being able to work from home is the ability to connect to the Internet. Because your employees are working on documents and files that must remain confidential, secure broadband or password-protected Internet is a must.

Connect to company network from all devices

If your employees are ever in a location where there is not a secure Internet connection, or even if they only work from a home office, access to the company network must be installed on all devices. Your remote employees may switch between a laptop, desktop, tablet and mobile device, using each interchangeably. Although this is great for flexibility, it can be a nightmare for the IT department. One of the ways this is solved is through a VPN client. VPN allows remote employees to securely connect to the company’s network, permitting access to the company intranet as well as network areas where they have the appropriate permissions.

Software to promote collaboration and productivity

The correct software is necessary to create an optimal virtual workspace. Because there is a large variety of software available, it can be difficult to decide what will work for you. Sticking to at least three essential tools — instant messaging, web conferencing and file sharing — can make your virtual workspace run as smoothly as a traditional office space. Most laptops come standard with built-in webcams, making it easy for remote employees to attend video conference calls. For in-office computers that do not have a built-in webcam, purchase a camera that will sit on top of a desktop computer or conference room monitor screen. The final component to collaboration and productivity is data/file sharing. Sharing large, secure files with clients, vendors and co-workers via a cloud software provider increases productivity and reduces the time spent sending and receiving large emails. File encryption and other security measures can give you peace of mind when you need to send confidential files.

Achieve a positive impact

Having a virtual workforce means less space is needed for employees, which can reduce the costs associated with office leasing, utilities and equipment. It also means that remote employees are able to have a better balance of work and life, and can reduce the environmental impact of commuting.

Building a successful virtual workplace requires managers to be diligent in communication and building relationships with all employees, both in-office and remote. Your ability to communicate and build relationships will influence and impact overall team collaboration. But with some planning and effort, you can make your virtual team as productive, effective and close-knit as an in-office team.

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