Integrating Virtual Employees into the Fold: Defining the Problem

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Melanie Turek, Contributor

February 6, 2007

3 Min Read

As someone who recently joined a very large, global organization, I know first hand how difficult it can be to integrate into a new corporate environment. Of the dozen or so people I work with on a regular basis, no one is in the same location as anyone else—and about half aren’t in the U.S. (I work out of a home office in Colorado; almost everyone else is also in a home office, but a few are at corporate sites 50%-80% of the time.)

What’s more, those 12 people may be the ones I need to work with most often, but they’re by no means the only people I need to work with. Understanding who else I must know in a company of 1300-plus employees is no small feat, and it’s made much more difficult by the virtual workplace. Certainly, my co-workers can and do steer me in the right direction when I need help (Joe Smith handles this, Sarah Jones, handles that), but it’s a reactive model.

When people talk about collaboration, they often focus on getting teams together to work on projects, from anywhere and anytime they need to. That’s important, but it’s just as important to remember that a lot of work doesn’t get done by pre-defined teams—it gets done by ad-hoc groups of two or more employees, and that those groups often change and mutate as a project progresses. Connecting employees to people outside their departments or business groups is critical to driving innovation, as well as ensuring employees can do what they need to when they need to do it. (If I need to get a finished project “approved” by the marketing team and have no idea who’s on that team, it will delay my final release by hours or days while I figure out who to contact; but if I have an idea for a new product and have no idea who to take it to, the new product won’t get evaluated, never mind made.)

In the old business world, when everyone worked in the same building, sharing cafeterias, parking lots, even bathrooms, it was easy to meet people outside your immediate job function or business group. You’d chat about who they were and what they were doing, and next time you needed info or insight into that area you knew exactly who to talk to—and probably where to find them. In the virtual workplace, those ad-hoc interactions don’t happen. As a result, it’s easy for remote and home-based workers to feel disconnected from the larger organization. That disconnection makes it harder for them to participate in the business fully, and contribute more directly to the bottom line. That can have consequences for their own careers as well as for the business overall.

Indeed, “getting ahead” is as much about who you know as what you can do. What happens if you don’t know anyone, because you have little or no opportunity to meet them? Your career suffers, and so does the organization you work for. You won’t be able to contribute to strategic projects (since you don’t know who’s handling them, or even what they are); and the company won’t get to tap into your creativity and expertise outside your specific, pre-defined work role.

Helping employees stay connected isn’t easy, and it’s not all about technology. But I definitely have some ideas about how it can be done… stay tuned next time for specific recommendations and best practices that have worked for me and other virtual organizations.

Melanie Turek is principal analyst for Frost & Sullivan.

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