Set Up Remote Workers to Thrive

  • Jay Mulki, Fleura Bardhi, Felicia Lassk and Jayne Nanavaty-Dahl
  • October 01, 2009

As increasing numbers of employees work remotely, companies need to find effective ways to manage internal communication and social interaction, and also to provide these employees with opportunities to become more visible.

During the last decade, virtual work — professionals working remotely from home, from client locations or simply from the road — has become increasingly prevalent. Some Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble, IBM, Accenture and AT&T, have already partially or fully eliminated traditional offices.1 As much as 10% of today’s work force telecommutes from home — more than triple the level of 2000. In addition, as companies trim staff positions in areas such as information technology, accounting and public relations, they are relying more heavily on freelance workers.2 Telecommuting and remote work arrangements will accelerate in the coming decades in response to the ongoing globalization of work, ever-increasing customer demands and the cost and time of commuting.

Virtual work arrangements appeal to both corporations and employees based on the economics and the personal flexibility and autonomy they offer. Flexible work has enabled corporations to hire and retain employees who value the ability to respond to family demands and desire more control over the time, place and mode of their work.3 By reducing the number of full-time employees on site, corporations are realizing higher productivity and savings in real estate costs. International Business Machines Corp., for example, saves $100 million a year by allowing 42% of its employees to work remotely.4 However, virtual employees and managers alike are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges associated with virtual work as they relate to internal communication, social interaction and employee satisfaction and commitment.

The Pros and Cons of Remote Work

Traditional work is based on tying an employee’s time to job tasks and location. It is structured around employees gathered in a central location, which allows managers to coordinate activities and advance internal communication. The traditional work format enables sharing of social experience, interpersonal coordination, modeling of work behaviors and giving and seeking advice. Virtual work, by contrast, refers to employment configurations outside of the traditional office — along a continuum that ranges from occasional telecommuting to “hoteling” (sharing office space in a company location designed for use on a drop-in basis) to home-based work to fully mobile employees.5