In her article for the Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money (Six Ways to Manage a Virtual Work Force) author Diana Ransom says: “Thanks to improved technology and the high price of gasoline, working remotely has become an increasingly popular—and less expensive —option for both large and small work forces.” She also shares how to tackle the “…challenges of managing a remote work force” with several well thought out strategies for small businesses. But one very important element that the author ignores is HR’s role in this quickly developing trend.
Essentially the policies, processes and programs for the virtual worker are no different from those for the on-site worker. The virtual worker’s career follows the same trajectory: selection, assessment, performance measurement, development, coaching, succession or outplacement. These systems and methodologies belong to HR for on-site workers and should belong to HR for virtual workers as well.
In fact, HR should be leading the effort to assess virtual work arrangements and create virtual work pilots and experiments in the HR department. Why? For several reasons:
• HR would be better positioned to understand, explain, promote, communicate and create structure around virtual work arrangements with hands on experience.
• There are many components of HR that lend themselves to virtual arrangements. Consider employment interviews for example, with simple and inexpensive web cam technology preliminary interviews could be conducted remotely.
• Although not a profit center, HR must manage costs and deliver value. The economic value of virtual work arrangements is significant. Real estate costs for “brick and mortar” buildings and offices are significant and wherever those costs can be reduced, the bottom line will be improved. HR can help the company realize “soft” goals such as attracting and retaining the best talent while adding economic value.
But it isn’t as simple as handing employees a lap top and sending them back home. Neither every job nor every employee is appropriate for a virtual arrangement.
• Privacy is big concern. Data encryption, back up and fire walls are necessary to ensure that sensitive information is managed in the appropriate way. But don’t’ be dissuaded by this. Even in the areas of personal financial information and HIPAA privacy requirements, virtual work arrangements have been successfully implemented. HR needs to partner closely with IT to make sure that the necessary data privacy concerns are addressed.
• When virtual arrangements expand beyond the human resources department, HR needs to partner with the operational entity to assess both job positions and personnel for these arrangements. The law of diminishing returns applies to virtual work arrangements. Selecting the best suited employees for these arrangements will improve productivity, but for marginal workers, virtual arrangements may further reduce their effectiveness.
• The company needs to consider both sides of the virtual work arrangement: What does the company need from the employee and what does the employee need from the company. There is more to work than the work itself. There are the social and community aspects of work that can be lost for the virtual worker. In part, this can be addressed by selecting the right people for virtual work arrangements. But it is also important to consider how the company and department and the supervisory staff can fill this void.
• And it’s not just selecting the right employees and job position for virtual work that can drive the success of these alternative work arrangements. Managers and supervisors have a huge influence on the success of virtual work arrangements. HR will need to create training interventions for supervisors to help them best manage virtual staff.
No question virtual work arrangements are a great opportunity for a company to retain top talent, and to access non-traditional and alternative talent pools. Companies needing uniquely skilled labor might find virtual workers in other geographies to fill certain roles. Fast growing companies in tight labor markets can find virtual resources to expand their businesses. A significant opportunity lies in finding individuals who are in “transition” whether that be new partners needing flexible arrangements, retirees with the need to augment their savings, or more “transient” populations such as military spouses who relocate frequently.
Today few companies have a single workforce. The most successful companies will embrace a multi-layered, multi-dimensional, multi-geographic structure and create a diverse workforce that delivers higher value at lower cost.
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