Businesses are seeing an enormous increase in the number of remote and virtual workers—the number of teleworkers alone has increased by 150% since 1999, according to recently released research from Frost & Sullivan. Globalization is certainly a reason for the change; a company cannot have a global workforce without having some percentage of its employees work remotely from headquarters, and from one another. Other factors include the need to attract and keep quality employees; the desire to expand into new markets and regions (local or national) without expending a large amount of initial capital; and the ability to stay flexible in a fast-changing business climate.
Although both are on the rise, it’s important to remember that remote and virtual workers are not the same thing.
Remote workers work in a satellite or home office (or primarily from the road), but they may find themselves frequently, if not always, in the physical company of their co-workers, managers, and reports. On the other hand, virtual workers are situated in a different location from that of their managers, co-workers, and/or reports. A person can work out of the company’s headquarters and still be considered a “virtual worker” if the rest of his or her team is located somewhere else.
Meanwhile, distributed teams are made up of knowledge workers physically located in different places, often around the world; in today’s business and economic climate, many teams are distributed, and are, therefore, also “virtual.” For example, a distributed research and development team at a U.S. company might have designers working out of corporate headquarters in New York, while the main materials suppliers are based in South America, and the manufacturers operate out of Asia; meanwhile, various VP-level department heads who need to weigh in on product design and development may be located in cities around the world, depending on their business functions and the teams they oversee. All will need quick and easy access to collaboration tools, so they can work together on projects and new products whenever the need arises.
Whoever they are and wherever they’re located, all types of employees need to stay connected to one another and their company’s business partners and customers. We’re finding this to be a top priority for executives, roughly two-thirds of whom in a recent survey listed it as their biggest business challenge today. Not their biggest communications challenge, mind you—their biggest business challenge overall. That certainly makes technology that helps companies get and keep employees connected increasingly valuable—no wonder so many vendors are devoting so many resources toward developing newer and better tools. The question is, will they get the job done?