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Summary:

Among cutting-edge companies the realities of virtual teams may be fairly old news, but according to several recent articles, the same isn’t true for many mainstream HR departments who are badly behind when it comes to grappling with the implications of widespread remote work.

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Among technologists, futurists and those working at cutting-edge companies, virtual teams and the realities of remote work may be fairly old news. But according to a recent article from the Canadian HR Reporter, the same doesn’t appear to be true for most mainstream HR departments, which the author Dave Crisp feels are badly behind the curve when it comes to understanding new ways of working and implementing the necessary policies and procedures.

Crisp notes that for many years most HR departments saw virtual work as the domain of a handful of road warriors who could be relied on to work with their managers to sort out their individual tools and needs. But HR failed to keep up with changing conceptions of virtual work as technology and shifting mindsets allowed the idea of location independence to spread through much larger swathes of organizations. He writes:

As time passed technology made most of us capable of working remotely at least part time with few special arrangements. It also enabled more people to tie into virtual meetings via various types of collaboration programs and online tools. The emphasis shifted away from remote workers as special cases that had to be monitored to an assumption entire teams might be assembled from workers who are located somewhere other than where the leader is or teams in one location being led by a leader located somewhere else.

Or as Wayne Turmel put it in his thoughtful meditation for Management Issues on the themes raised in the Canadian HR Reporter post, “it’s impossible not to acknowledge that while IT was busy building tools (and empires) to cut costs and minimize travel, the discussions frequently didn’t include HR beyond how much they could cut costs (and head count).” He concludes: “As often happens, HR is left to come in after the cow has run off and safe-proof the barn.”

So what questions is HR now scrambling to ask and answer about virtual work? Both Crisp and Turmel have suggestions, such as:

  • Are employees expected to be connected 24/7? If so, should they be paid extra for it? And, I’d add, what are the longer-term risks of burnout created by such a policy?
  • Are productivity and effectiveness being measured properly when it’s no longer possible to simply drop in on an employee’s cubicle and see what they’re up to?
  • Do managers need training in how to communicate effectively at a distance? Issues like the tone of email, handling conflict across distance, making the most of virtual meetings and deciding who to include in which communications come up here, as do questions of how managers can maintain an “open door” policy when they have no door.
  • How should managers or HR handle the situation when cliques or subgroups form within virtual teams and information isn’t properly shared?
  • How should managers solicit feedback?

What other questions do HR departments have to confront as virtual work becomes more widespread?

Image courtesy of Flickr user x-ray delta one.

  1. What are HR departments up to speed on?

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  2. Yes. is the short answer.

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  3. Kirsten Osolind Thursday, January 5, 2012

    Well said, Nancy.

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  4. Jocelyn Aucoin Friday, January 6, 2012

    Thanks for the article, Jessica!

    I think there’s the potential for a lot of management headaches with virtual workers.. potentially. But there certainly doesn’t have to be! It’s true that some companies aren’t quite up to speed yet in dealing with this, but if willing, there are solutions that can really remedy the problems of staying connected, measuring productivity, and easing communication and feedback between managers and their teams. Sound like a pipe dream? I know. HA!

    One company that started this movement is WorkSimple – http://www.getworksimple.com. I describe it as Facebook for work, but it’s so much more than status updates.

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  5. Too much emphasis is placed on “What is the employee doing when the manager peaks around the cubicle corner?”. Too many managers worry about what the employee is doing at any given moment they happen to peak over the employees shoulder.

    It should be more about, what have they accomplished at the end of the day, week, or the month.

    If a manager knows what an employee’s productivity accomplishments are while in the office are, then it should be easy to compare that to how they perform from afar… It’s not just about what you see…. it’s about what you get.

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  6. HR is once again trying to create relevancy for themselves by attempting to codify and apply rules to something that should be organic.

    I agree HR needs to be involved, but instead of worrying about how remote employees are doing their work, they need to be removing roadblock concepts like “the 40 hour work week” and the impractical accumulation of vacation time.

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