The Quality Observer - January/February 1998

Virtual Offices:

A Potential Disaster for Quality Employee Output

by Thomas L. Greenbaum


It is almost impossible to pick up a business magazine today without seeing an article about some aspect of remote computing and how the business environment will change in the new millennium as a result of this emerging trend. Essentially, remote computing is defined as the ability of workers to operate out of "virtual offices" that are outside of the traditional, centralized work-place environment. Through the use of modems, laptop computers and other high-tech gear, it is possible for workers to perform most or all of their tasks electronically without having a traditional office. This includes communicating with co-workers via e-mail, fax or video conferencing, and even sharing files with their colleagues so members of a work team can coordinate their efforts and share thoughts together. There are now Internet products available that enable people in remote environments to meet and communicate as a group in cyberspace.

The Benefits

Several different factors are creating excitement about remote computing and fueling this new approach to doing business. The most important of these are:

  1. The opportunity to eliminate commuting to the office, since many people will be able to work from home. Many feel this would improve employee lifestyles since they would no longer have to spend so much of their work day (and money) traveling to and from work.
  2. The significant cost savings that companies would realize over time, as requirements for office space diminish due to fewer people working in a headquarters operation.
  3. The increase in productivity of the individual employee due to the reduction in distractions of the office environment, and the greater time that will be spent working on the job due to the elimination of commuting time.
  4. The ability of a field sales or service organization to operate as a fully autonomous unit without having to come into the office to check mail, pick up materials and receive the "marching orders" from their management.
  5. The greater speed of communication due to the use of electronic media to communicate rather than the traditional paper flow.

Problematic Issues

Because of these factors and perhaps a few others not mentioned, a large percentage of business, educational and governmental organizations are planning for the future by installing high-tech equipment that will permit their organization to realize the benefits of remote computing. However, it is unclear whether these same companies have begun to address the serious potential problems that are likely to occur as they move into this new approach to conducting business. For instance, while the concept of working at home to eliminate commuting is a very appealing idea, it carries with it some very significant potential negatives which could dramatically impact on the productivity of the work force and ultimately the profitability and/or effectiveness of the organization. The extent to which there are problems resulting from the backlash effects of remote computing will depend somewhat on the type of person involved in the effort as well as the nature of the job they hold. However, for many positions, the rising trend toward the virtual office and the remote computing environment can be very problematic. As a result, long term planner for human resources issues must address several areas over the short-term to be able to deal effectively with this inevitable trend. Examples of these include the following:

The Need for Socialization. Employers must provide some form of socialization for the work force operating in a remote environment. While there clearly are some people who are very comfortable working alone in a remote office or at home, most human beings are gregarious animals who need some type of companionship to maintain their morale and motivation. The brief breaks at the coffee machine, restrooms, before and after work or at lunch give workers an opportunity to communicate with their peers and give them a structured break from the daily routine of their job.

It is a serious question whether the average worker can operate in a remote environment without contact with their peers and still remain happy and motivated and maintain a feeling of belonging to an organization. Working in virtual offices might appear to be a very appealing concept for a short time - for a day or two, or a week - but as a full-timejob it could result in a very unhappy and unmotivated work force.

Motivation for Productivity. Employers must also generate approaches to motivate employees in a remote environment to be at least as productive as they are in a traditional office. One of the benefits of the current office environment is the structure it provides, both in terms of the hours of operation but also the demands placed on them for productivity. For example, the typical worker understands that they are permitted to take a restroom break whenever needed, or even to chat briefly with coworkers about items not related to the job, but the convention of the office requires that these be very brief interludes from the job, rather than extended breaks.

Distractions. In a remote office, or even worse, in a home environment, the structure of the main location is not in place and it is very easy for the worker to be distracted by external factors. This could seriously affect their productivity. For example, what is to stop a worker from watching a sporting event or major televised trial, or surfing the Internet while working at home or in a remote office? The worker might not feel this is affecting their productivity but it certainly would not be permitted in most offices, for obvious reasons.

Communication. Efficient ways to share ideas on a timely basis among employees or between the employee and the supervisor are needed so that the quality of the work product is consistent with the needs of the organization.

How to Make Virtual Offices Productive

A whole new approach is needed for managing employees in a virtual environment, in order to leverage the benefits associated with remote computing without having them erased by the potential negative aspects. With this in mind, the following are several indicated actions that need to be considered by human resource professionals over the short term to deal with this situation:

Test Employees First. Companies should develop psychological testing programs aimed at determining the profile of the type of person who can work effectively in a remote environment. This would enable them to screen out the people who would not be successful under such an arrangement, keeping them in the main office where they can continue to produce in their position.
Transition Them Over Time. Organizations should adopt procedures whereby employees who will be working in a remote environment are transitioned into this type of work situation over an extended period of time. They might begin with one day a week for the first month, then add a day every other month so that it would take 6-8 months to get them into a fully-autonomous remote environment. This will help both the company and the employee determine whether this is the right situation for them.

Allow Some of both. By providing a new type of office arrangement in which people could work part-time in a remote environment, companies would allow them to have the best of both worlds. This would probably eliminate the concept of the personal office (or work space), with employees being assigned an office on those days they would be at the main facility.

Train Managers. Developing policies and procedures to enable supervisors to effectively manage workers in a remote environment. These would address issues such as training and development, motivation, monitoring and managing productivity and maintaining high levels of morale in the remote work force. The one thing that is quite clear is that management in this type of environment is quite different from what almost all mangers are customed to today, and therefore it will be necessary for them to learn new skills along with their employees. Organizations must adopt practices that will enable them to leverage the benefits of the new high-tech world while at the same time building in some kind of "high touch" elements which would replace what employees currently receive in the traditional office environment.


Thomas L. Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus

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