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The Virtual Workplace: Passing Trend or Lasting Productivity Strategy?

It has been interesting to watch the traditional 9-5 office workday evolve increasingly into remote positions and work-from-home opportunities.

I first touched on this issue in a September 2016 piece I wrote for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal that also appeared that month in our EASI•Consult® newsletter. In that column, I recounted my experience with Anheuser-Busch, whose CEO essentially said, “If I can’t see you, you are not working.” I then went on to discuss how EASI•Consult® is a completely virtual organization.

Being virtual provides some challenges, like having those informal in-office conversations that lead to connections. We also thought the ability to work from home under a fairly flexible schedule would be particularly attractive to younger employees, but we lost a very good industrial/organizational psychologist after only a couple of years because she lived alone and wanted companionship during the day. We simply could not offer her the social stimulation of an office environment in our virtual arrangement.

Recently, an article about IBM got me thinking about this topic again. After offering remote work opportunities, the company has called all its employees back to a brick-and-mortar environment. In that Quartz article, “Is Working From Home Really More Productive?”, author Sarah Kessler indicates that the question has been settled by researchers. The answer, it turns out, is not so definitive – “it depends.”

IBM’s move struck me for a number of reasons. For one, the cost of providing work space for all those formerly virtual employees is extraordinary. I’m sure IBM didn’t have several buildings around the world just sitting there empty that they could use to house these employees.

Secondly, when you hire an employee to fill a remote position within your Chicago office, the person doesn’t actually have to live in Chicago.  They could live elsewhere in Illinois, the country or the world, for that matter. So, when you return to in-office jobs, who pays to relocate employees that live, say, 50 miles from the Chicago office? What do you do if they won’t move? Do you pay them severance, say good-bye and hire a Chicagoan? Again, that’s expensive.

In my 2016 piece, I touched on leadership style. Do you lead differently when you are all in the same building than when your team lives around the world? I think so.

In a remote working environment, the emphasis is more heavily on managing results than process and results. So, in the case of IBM, what changes in leadership style will occur and what will the impact be?

As with so many organizational changes, sometimes you must go from one extreme to another before settling in on a good middle ground.  So, how should organizations go about determining whether brick-and-mortar or virtual offices are best? Does the decision even have to be one or the other?

I don’t think so, although it may be harder for a virtual organization to maintain a partial physical office space versus the other way around.

When individuals, teams, functions or organizations request a virtual arrangement, how do you decide? What’s the decision-making process, and how do you measure the cost of this decision? I think that can be measured.

But can you measure the ROI? Studies suggest that a remote workforce equals increased productivity. Many organizations make the decision to go virtual based on emotional factors like engagement. While I think that could be a factor, any business decision should be based on a cost/benefit rationale. If, in addition to the financial benefit, you can demonstrate in a measurable way that this decision leads to higher engagement, then even better.

The other aspect of the virtual decision is leadership. How do the leaders communicate, motivate, give feedback, develop, reward, take corrective action and monitor these people they rarely, if ever, see face-to-face? What does close supervision look like in a virtual environment? How much of the decision-making do you dictate or delegate? Do you manage activity or results?  Are working hours negotiable or is everyone required to do it the same way?

Could you “bring someone in” from a virtual office to a brick-and-mortar environment to address a performance issue and then “send” them back out to his or her virtual space? Would there ever be a reason to move an office person to a virtual environment? What if one team requests and is granted remote employment and goes on to satisfy the ROI but heavily interfaces with a brick-and-mortar team? How do you accommodate the competing needs of two different groups?

This work-from-home debate reminds me of the struggle organizations went through in the 1980s when matrix management was first introduced. While in theory, matrix management created dual reporting relationships, the reality for most was either a functional or a product organization. You can declare you have a matrix organization only to find either functional or product.

Similarly, declaring we are a virtual organization does not mean it functions effectively. I am biased in that I like a virtual environment. But liking it doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of process issues we need to articulate, discuss and determine how to work in quantifiable ways.  We need to be intentional in our desire to have solutions that are quantifiable.

Only by measuring will you silence the nay-sayers.  Quantifying allows us to have a business discussion versus an opinionated or emotional decision. And the ability to have a rational discussion is important, since this issue is not going away.

David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at EASI•Consult®. EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.

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