Brie Reynolds starts work before 7 a.m. She checks email on her phone over a breakfast of Cheerios and fruit. After walking her dog in the park, she’s ready to head to her home office for a day of crafting blog posts, company listings and other material as content and community outreach manager for FlexJobs, a service that screens telecommuting jobs for potential candidates.
Although Reynolds has worked for FlexJobs for almost a year, she’s never been to the company’s Boulder, Colorado, headquarters. She’s never even met Sara Sutton Fell, FlexJobs’ founder and CEO—not even for her job interview, which was conducted over the phone. But she keeps in touch with Fell on a regular basis by phone, instant messages and Yammer, the Web-based collaboration software. Once or twice a week they dial into conference calls with the company’s other staff members, too.
Reynolds, who previously worked as a career counselor at a private college in Boston, enjoys working from home now and says Fell’s management style helped her make the transition from a traditional office environment. “She asks probing questions,” Reynolds says. “She wants to know if you’re comfortable with a task. Or if you need more guidance, she’ll help you. I like independent working but still being connected.”
Such interaction is critical to FlexJobs’ network of far-flung employees. In fact, Fell hasn’t met most of her 10 employees, who are spread out—from Atlanta, where Reynolds lives, to Colorado, Minnesota and beyond—and all of whom she hired through telephone or webcam interviews.
But if communication is strong, Fell says, bonds among virtual teammates can be as tight as in any face-to-face work group. She experienced that firsthand when a FlexJobs employee whom she had never met in person developed breast cancer and continued to work during her treatment. “I went through a lot with her,” Fell says.
In the end, Fell believes that results-oriented managers who make sure their mobile workers understand exactly what’s expected of them will be most successful. “Just yesterday I had someone thank me for making this such a great job,” she says. “I don’t micromanage, but I do make sure we live up to our roles. It’s not about face time; it’s about hitting progress marks.”
The ranks of employees who work outside a traditional brick-and-mortar office continue to grow, with 37 percent of 563 North American companies offering full-time positions outside the office, according to a February survey from the trade group WorldatWork. As more employees work remotely on either a full-time or part-time basis, the trend is changing how companies manage and recruit.
Fell started an office-based online job board in 1995 that grew to 125 employees before she sold it to Korn/Ferry International about a decade ago. Now that she runs a virtual company, she looks for employees with different qualities than she would have previously. That includes people who ask questions proactively and who “let you know if they have a problem because you can’t see someone skulk through the hallway when there’s an issue,” she says.
To determine whether potential employees have such qualities, Fell pays attention to how forthcoming they are in phone conversations. She also asks candidates to describe themselves in a few words. “If you get responses like ‘quiet’ or ‘introverted,’ that can be a red flag, not necessarily a deal-breaker, just something to be aware of and will likely take more proactive management on my part,” she says. Finally, she asks point-blank if people are comfortable asking questions and being open about communicating. “Some people simply agree, and others are thrilled about it,” she says. “The latter are likely to better embody that particular trait.”
It isn’t just small businesses, startups and Internet companies such as FlexJobs that are increasingly shifting to a more mobile workforce. Global enterprises and midsize businesses also are giving employees more flexible hours and carte blanche to work from home offices, the road and other remote locations. By 2013, technology researcher IDC predicts that more than 75 percent of the U.S. workforce will be mobile in some respect.
Such mobility offers companies and employees a variety of advantages. The financial benefits alone can be substantial. Letting employees work from home 50 percent of the time could save employers $10,000 per year per person in increased productivity, reduced facilities costs, and lower absenteeism and turnover, according to Telework Research Network, a Carlsbad, California-based think tank on mobile workplace issues.
A mobile workforce also enables companies to adjust quickly to changing business conditions. Razorfish, a Seattle-based digital advertising agency, sent employees in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, home to work in late 2009. Fewer clients made it too expensive to continue to rent space for the small satellite offices in those cities, says Mardi Douglass, Razorfish’s director of employee services. After all, she adds, “Most people just need an Internet connection and computer to do” their work.
Razorfish did rent space in Los Angeles and Portland for home-based employees to use for meetings. The agency also posted virtual team training materials on its intranet for both managers and employees to understand what was expected of them. When the volume of work started growing again earlier this year, Razorfish moved Portland employees back into an office. Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles employees still work remotely.
Perhaps most important of all, mobile work arrangements can be a powerful employee engagement tool. They typically offer greater work-life balance, which is particularly attractive to the millennial generation. Millennials grew up online and want to be able to work anywhere, anytime, armed with their laptop computers and smartphones.
PepsiCo Inc., for example, emphasizes its flexible work arrangements in both its recruiting and retention efforts, says Paul Marchand, vice president of global talent acquisition. PepsiCo has about 300,000 employees, and the workers who aren’t involved in such functions as production or delivery can work remotely using email or the company’s virtual private network as needed. “As long as they deliver,” Marchand says. “While we value in-office collaboration, at the end of the day, we’re a results-oriented culture.”
But along with the potential benefits, mobile work arrangements bring special management challenges. In a March survey of nearly 100 U.S. companies, mobile workforce consultant Runzheimer International found that 46 percent say their biggest concern about mobile workforce programs is lack of employee oversight and supervision. Some of the other difficulties included measuring program success and rising costs.
Indeed, it seems that companies still have a lot to learn about managing virtual workforces. In the WorldatWork study, the trade group found that most organizations don’t offer any type of training to managers or workers to help make such arrangements succeed.
And according to the Runzheimer survey, 57 percent of respondents don’t have, are unsure if they have or are just starting to create formal processes to manage their mobile workforce. As the workplace evolves, managers’ relationships with employees are changing, says Runzheimer president Greg Harper. “They need new skills and new ways of communicating.” Traditional management through observing what people are doing is out, he says, while managing by measuring people’s outcomes is in.
Some companies are trying to play catch-up, creating policies and procedures for supervising mobile workers or hiring consultants to advise them on best practices.
A new cottage industry is developing that includes conferences, consultants, books, research materials and other products related to mobile workforce management polices and practices. The Society for Human Resource Management will hold sessions on mobile workforce management at several national and regional conferences this year. The trade group also is collaborating with the not-for-profit Families and Work Institute to compile resource guides and other material that human resources managers can use to start flexible workplace programs.
HR departments also can hire training companies such as BlessingWhite Inc. and OnPoint Consulting to run in-person or online virtual workforce management classes covering topics such as communicating effectively, addressing interpersonal conflict, building trust in virtual work groups, and using work-group collaboration technology.
Office furnishing companies and technology vendors are trying to capitalize on the mobile workforce movement, as well. Cort, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc.-owned office furniture rental company, advises customers on setting up telework programs and then delivers desks and chairs to home-based workers. There also are teleconferencing vendors, such as GoToMeeting, a Citrix Systems Inc. division, and Cisco Systems Inc.’s Webex division, which offer white papers, online videos and other assistance with remote work programs.
Some companies that have long employed virtual workers are discovering they need more management training. For example, Autodesk Inc. has had remote workers almost since its inception 29 years ago, but it only recently began addressing managers’ concerns about supervising the company’s growing corps of virtual employees.
The San Rafael, California-based 3-D software-maker polled managers and found that they felt challenged to keep their remote workers engaged and connected. They didn’t know if the coaching they provided remote staff was effective, says Harry Wittenberg, the senior HR training consultant who spearheaded the survey. The managers also wanted help disseminating company information so that everyone on their teams received it at the same time, and they asked for guidance in teaching mobile employees to communicate more effectively.
Although 21 percent of Autodesk’s work groups worldwide include at least one virtual employee, the company’s training curriculum hadn’t included much material specifically aimed at managing a remote workforce. But this month, based on the survey findings, Autodesk is starting a pilot program to train managers on what Wittenberg calls “leading from a distance.” In-person and online learning modules include, among other things, simulations that cover such topics as building trust in mobile teams, holding remote workers accountable and conducting virtual meetings. “All managers will take a core section of the class, then choose to sign up for separate modules focused on specific skills they would like to work on,” Wittenberg says.
Even some old-line industries are trying to help leaders manage more traditional remote workforces more effectively. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for example, has launched a training program for supervisors of remote employees in its internal services group, which provides vehicle maintenance, groundskeeping and office supplies to other divisions of the San Francisco-based utility.
Two years ago when Mike Kelly, internal services chief of staff, conducted an employee engagement survey, he didn’t expect to discover that the happiest staff members all worked for a single supervisor who headed five shops spread across the state. It was an “Aha” moment that led Kelly and his team to investigate the leadership characteristics of that manager and others who scored well in the survey.
Kelly found that the management stars had three key attributes: They possessed superior communication skills, were “brutally simple and honest” about expectations for employees, and excelled at explaining how an individual’s work mattered to the utility’s success. “To a person, these leaders were students of the human condition,” Kelly says. “It indicated to us if you practice these leadership attributes, even if you’re managing people across the nation or the plant, if you’re a connector and you’re more to them than this invisible voice on the other side of the phone, all those things will improve performance.”
Kelly used the findings to create a series of workshops on management practices for other internal services group supervisors earlier this year. The supervisors had to include improvement on at least one of the three key attributes in their individual leadership development goals for 2011.
The rise of the mobile workforce isn’t just changing manager-employee relations. It’s also affecting how managers recruit.
Malcom Gilvar, executive vice president of sales at the Trade Group, a Carrollton, Texas-based trade show marketing and display company, gives personality tests to new hires to help identify self-starters and weed out anyone who might be overly social. “If I saw sociability was really high, they wouldn’t be happy working out of their house with limited contact” with other employees, he says. “You want someone comfortable being autonomous but also a team player.”
Workforce Management, June 2011, p. 22-24, 26, 28 — Subscribe Now!