It will come as no surprise that more and more enterprises are becoming increasingly “virtual” every day. Chances are, if you work for a company with more than a few dozen employees, you work for a company that has remote workers, whether they’re located in a satellite office or a home office, or spend almost all their time on the road.
But the “virtual workplace” is about more than having a distributed workforce. It’s about having employees regularly work in a location that’s separate from that of their managers, direct reports and/or immediate co-workers. In other words, it’s about having employees who regularly work with people without actually seeing them live. And often, it’s about having employees who interact across regions, countries, and time zones.
Based on that definition, 58% of IT executives who participated in Nemertes’ most recent benchmark on the issue say theirs is a “virtual workplace” today; another 9% say they’re “almost there.” What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it’s harder for employees to collaborate with each other, never mind with partners, suppliers and even customers. Planned meetings are more difficult to orchestrate; ad-hoc sessions, harder still. Since employees can’t see whether their co-workers are available (or even in the office), they spend more time playing phone and e-mail tag, and less time actually engaging. This increases the amount of time it takes to get work done, and decreases the sense of teamwork that can bring a workforce together, boost productivity, and increase the bottom line.
In a sense, we’re the victims of our own progress. Twenty years ago—even, for most companies, as little as five or 10 years ago—it was relatively easy to collaborate with co-workers. Chances are, the people you worked with day in and day out worked right next you, or just down the hall, and even the people you worked with infrequently were probably nearby when needed. You knew when they were in the office, you knew when they were not; if you called and got a busy signal, it was a simple matter to get up, stretch your legs, and walk by their desk to catch them when they got off the phone. Spontaneous meetings around the water cooler were a regular occurrence—and some of your best ideas came from those unplanned encounters. Sales calls were made in person, as were internal and external business meetings.
In the past several years, technology has changed all that. Now, companies report that between 10% and 40% of employees are working at headquarters, depending on the size and nature of the company. More and more, employees are working at locations different from their managers and/or co-workers—regardless of whether they or their managers or co-workers are themselves located in a headquarters, remote or home-office. On average about one third of employees work in a different location from their managers and/or their immediate co-workers (that is, the people they work most closely with on a day-to-day basis). Water-cooler meetings aren’t possible anymore; nor is it a simple matter to “see” whether the people you need to reach are around and, more importantly, available for an impromptu discussion.
But virtual workplaces take a variety of forms. For some companies, virtual workers are those who work in truly remote offices, across the country or the globe. For others, virtual workers spend most of their time on the road. And at still others, virtual workers are physically separated from their managers, co-workers and/or immediate reports, but may themselves work at a headquarters or large satellite corporate office.
In fact, it’s that last definition that we think truly describes the virtual workplace. Although a significant number of companies report a significant number of employees working away from headquarters that doesn’t mean those employees are necessarily “virtual.” Employees who work together with their team members and managers in a location separate from headquarters may require a unique network architecture, but as far as collaboration goes, there may be nothing virtual about it. More relevant are those employees who regularly interact with other employees who are located in different buildings, cities, or even countries; who span a variety of time zones; and who may or may not share the same documents and applications.
One multi-billion dollar company has 80% of its employees stationed in remote offices, and 15% in home offices full time. Why? “Cost savings. Business-expansion requirements. And people like the idea of more flexibility,” says the firm’s director of communications and networking.
Business growth accounts for a lot of the change Nemertes sees in the number of virtual workers. What’s more, companies are becoming increasingly global—and that makes real-time communications tools all the more valuable. And except in very discrete cases, most employees need to work with others outside their immediate team or peer group at some time or another, and often they need to do so on a regular basis. That’s where the virtual workplace gets interesting—and that’s where real-time communications technologies come in.
Disparately located workers can clearly benefit from real-time communications, because the people they need to speak with most, and most often, are by the nature of their situation difficult to see and reach.
Many of the IT executives Nemertes speaks with cite an increasing interest in enabling an “agile enterprise.” An agile enterprise reacts quickly and efficiently to changes, such as market opportunities or mergers and acquisitions. The ability to react quickly can translate to top-line revenue, and the ability to adjust efficiently can also lead to lower costs.
Elements that enable an agile enterprise include quick communications, increased productivity, and getting closer to customers. Not surprisingly, these are the business drivers most often cited by IT executives when asked about their motives for using real-time communications tools. This is especially important in a virtual workplace environment; among companies that define themselves as being a virtual organization, more than a third cite “quick communication” as the most important business driver.
Not surprisingly, 92% of those IT executives say real-time communications technology helps them manage remote workers, an increasingly important goal. Real-time communications tools let employees collaborate, no matter where they are or what time it is while they’re there. Real-time communications technologies are “not the reason we’re able to [have a virtual workplace], but it does make it easier to communicate with remote workers,” says the CTO of a professional services firm with 50% of knowledge workers in home offices.
For companies with lots of virtual workers, it can be critical to bring employees together, virtually, and make them feel as though they really are part of the larger team. Other companies are truly committed to helping employees balance work and life. This is often cited as a reason for letting employees work one or two days at home, for instance, and many IT executives say real-time communications tools make it easier to support that type of work.
We’ve found there are certain best practices that IT managers can employ to ensure success as they support the virtual workplace by rolling out real-time and collaborative technologies. They include:
- Recognize that the virtual workplace—remote and home-based workers—can have a real impact on the bottom line. Test drive this in the IT department, where real-time communications tools allow workers to support users from far-flung locations; then deploy it throughout the organization.
- There’s a difference between working in a remote office, working alone at home, and working remotely from your manager or teammates. If an entire business unit operates out of a single remote office, they may not operate in a virtual environment, at least not often. On the other hand, if one team member works at a different location—even if it’s the company’s headquarters location, he or she becomes a virtual worker—as does the rest of the team.
- Real-time communications can support and even enable the virtual workplace, but they work best when accompanied by business-process change. Before deploying the tools enterprise-wide, make a point of evaluating your current communications processes, then look at how they can be improved with the help of real-time technologies.
- Speaking of business processes, it’s critical to involve line-of-business managers and end users when you decide to deploy new communications technologies. These tools get to the heart of how people work—and making changes without their buy-in simply won’t succeed.
- Along those lines, consider the corporate culture in place at your organization. Are employees open to using new technologies? Are they inclined to share information? Are they stubbornly independent? And what about the managers? Executive- and management-level buy in is critical to a successful transformation.