Future Focus

At Work in a Virtual World

By Jennifer Schramm Jun 1, 2010
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0610cover.gifAs employers look for ways to boost productivity and keep costs down, many are exploring the potential benefits of virtual working for employees.

According to Transitioning to a Virtual Organization, a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll report, more than half of the 383 members who responded said their organizations already permit virtual working—defined as working away from company premises and communicating with those in the workplace through technological means. Twenty-two percent said they think the proportion of employees in their organizations working virtually will increase within the next 12 months.

Although a majority of organizations may have some jobs done from virtual offices or workspaces, most currently do not have more than 10 percent of their employees working in this way. This indicates that working virtually may currently be practical for only a limited range of jobs.

Yet this may be changing. The November 2009 SHRM poll found that about 19 percent of the responding organizations currently have more than 20 percent of their workforces operating in this way, and about 8 percent have more than 40 percent of their employees working virtually.

The concept of "co-working" through shared use of office space by mobile workers or teleworkers has been around for some time, but the need to reduce facility costs during the recession appeared to encourage many business leaders to expand their teleworking programs. And the rise in individuals taking on contract work as a way to bridge the gap between jobs during the downturn may be reviving the co-working idea.

In addition, research on the productivity and cost-effectiveness of teleworking is becoming better known in the business community, especially among HR practitioners. Studies have shown that teleworking can improve employees’ productivity and effectiveness. For example, a study funded by the SHRM Foundation found that employees’ performance improved when they switched to teleworking.

Finally, leading organizations are demonstrating that it is possible to transform a fairly large percentage of an organization’s employees into virtual workers.

HR professionals are contributing significantly to the strategic development of a virtual working model in their organizations and to the establishment of support mechanisms that help virtual workers remain productive over time. As the SHRM poll showed, HR professionals are deeply involved in setting policies and procedures, ensuring technical support, providing training and development for off-site workers, and establishing work/life balance guidelines that ensure the success of virtual working.

As more organizations begin to offer virtual working as an option or to increase the percentage of employees who work off-site, often on a global scale, HR professionals will be asked to demonstrate the impact that this way of working has on productivity and employee satisfaction.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.


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