The world of work is an ever-changing environment. One of the changes sweeping nearly all workplaces and industries is the move toward virtual work. We might recall news headlines of the pioneers of the “remote work” movement who early on cleared their physical locations to give way for employees to work from anywhere in the world. New headlines continue to highlight such innovations. Take, for instance, Cisco, who announced earlier this year that their new employee flexible work program has resulted in $490 million dollars of fiscal savings as well as increased employee satisfaction and talent retention.
Today more than ever, virtuality affects the workplace far more directly, frequently, and across industries; we must move beyond accommodating virtual work episodically and into embedding it systematically for our organizations to repeat success in a new virtual working environment. Let’s look at some of the facts.
The number of employees who work remotely is on the rise.
- Four in 10 American workers now spend at least some of their time working remotely.
- From 2013 to 2016 alone, employees who work remotely in some capacity has risen from 39 percent to 43 percent. Those who work remotely 80-100 percent of the time is up from 24 percent to 31 percent. Finally, employees who work remotely 100 percent of the time is up from 15 percent to 20 percent (Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report, 2016).
The number of companies that offer remote work is on the rise.
- Sixty percent of companies offer their employees telecommuting opportunities—a threefold increase from 1996 (Society for Human Resource Management benefits survey, 2016).
- Industries demonstrating growth in remote workers spans well beyond those pioneering tech firms who first embraced the possibility of remote work. In fact, industries seeing demonstrable growth include finance/insurance/real estate, transportation, manufacturing/construction, healthcare, computer/information systems/mathematical, and law/public policy (Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report, 2016).
Virtual collaboration is on the rise (even for companies that do not embrace remote work).
- The use of physical or face-to-face meetings for collaboration at work is expected to decline by 44 percent. Similarly, the use of phone/voicemail for work collaboration is expected to drop by 30 percent (Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey, 2018).
- In its place as the new channels for collaboration, online collaboration platforms are expected to rise by 70 percent, work-based social media by 67 percent, and instant messaging by 67 percent (Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey, 2018).
A threefold result is evident for the American workplace. First, there is increased proliferation of organizations and industries who use and rely on remote workers to work as part of a virtual team to achieve results. Virtual teams have become a go-to model for getting work done.
Second, there is increased personal flexibility in the job market to work within a desired job or industry, from anywhere. This flexibility swings both ways, giving employees and organizations greater choice in matching talent to work regardless of geographical boundary.
Third, there is a growing move toward virtual work conditions and virtual collaboration, even in fully co-located and on-site teams. Evidently, it is becoming more critical than ever for the American workforce to innovate its approach to work.
While much attention is given to companies keeping pace with technological innovation, the availability of technology for virtual work is only one part of the virtual collaboration picture. It is pressing for nearly all types of organizations and industries to consider the following questions, and, more importantly, the implications of their answers:
- What are the critical factors that support engagement and performance of employees and teams working remotely? (Hint: Critical factors include organizational support as well as employee knowledge, skills, and abilities.)
- How do our organizational systems for recruitment, selection, onboarding, employee development, and succession planning align to remote work and virtual collaboration? (Hint: The global trend toward virtual work presents new opportunities and challenges, all of which require strategic leadership and change management to help the organization repeat success in the virtual environment.)
- How do we develop our workforce to effectively handle the challenges created by the virtual environment? (Hint: Job-fit is important, but interacting with customers virtually and being part of a virtual team require strong skills for virtual work, including high-quality communication.)
The space and place of work has changed, perhaps forever, giving way to virtual channels for how employees communicate, collaborate, and get work done. Our task ahead is to help our employees and organizations thrive with the knowledge, skills, abilities, and support systems to successfully innovate not only what we do, but also how we do it.