In many companies I work with, a certain percentage of employees work from home or are virtual employees – contractors or long-term freelancers. The percentage varies (ASTD, SHRM), from 30 to 45 percent, which seems consistent with what I hear from the HR practitioners and leaders that I collaborate with. It seems inevitable, then, that working from home, or being a virtual employee, is an established trend, Yahoo!’s action to limit remote employees notwithstanding.
What Marissa Mayer did at Yahoo! made sense for the struggling company: she was able to concentrate on getting people reconnected physically and in support of the company’s mission and culture. It also seems to make sense in the context of Mayer as a manager; her reputation for hands-on control preceded her selection by Yahoo!’s board and may have been one of the reasons she was chosen for the role.
Nevertheless, especially in tech companies, having remote and virtual employees is not only a way to get things done round the clock, without commuting, and with hard-to-find skill sets but is also a way to meet the needs of employees who don’t want to or can’t live near the mother ship.
As a proponent of work-life flexibility to recruit and retain talent and an observer of the World of Work, I support the notion of virtual workplaces and the reality of having virtual or remote employees. Not everyone wants to, or can afford to, live in Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston/Cambridge, Chicago, Raleigh-Durham or NYC.
Red Hat is one example of a highly distributed, highly effective company; in addition to its corporate hub in Raleigh, NC and development center in Westford, MA, it employs many highly-talented virtual employees. Red Hat’s culture is friendly to remote workers. Apple, on the other hand, is densely concentrated in Cupertino, where plans for a spaceship-like office complex are moving forward. Its centralized, command-and-control culture appears to be less adaptable to supporting large numbers of remote workers. Go figure.
Here, as elsewhere in the world of work, two principles prevail: know thyself, and know thy culture.
As a consultant I see myself as a virtual employee of the brands with which I work; as an entrepreneur I work actively with virtual teams. In the former case I need a specific set of skills to work virtually. I must possess the temperament and skills to succeed as a virtual team member. This requires me to know myself, to be self-motivated, focused, curious and flexible. Collaboration is essential.
As an entrepreneur who works with virtual teams, I need a somewhat different set of skills to manage remote players. I need to maintain a corporate culture supportive of – and with technical and communications systems in place – to enable remote employees to be successful. Here I must be self-aware, in tune with my skills, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. It also requires me to be empathetic, emotionally intelligent, sensitive to what others need, and willing to provide the tools necessary to success – not just a mission statement and goals, but the communications and technical infrastructure to empower my virtual teams.
As Rich Thompson of CPP Inc. (publishers of the Myers-Briggs self-assessment tool) wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review, self-awareness enables managers to understand their people, both on-site employees and remote employees. Understanding gives managers critical insights about the skills, temperaments, motivations, preferences and flexibility of their employees. It helps them see beyond the limits of a CV or resume into the person and his or her passion, which enables management to put the right person in the right job, regardless of where the employee sits physically.
For employees, self-awareness is an equally important attribute. Only with self-awareness can individuals understand their full capabilities, what motivates them or alienates them, their ability to learn, adapt and be flexible (excellent and necessary qualities for a remote employee) or their need for structure, routine and predictability (attributes of an employee better suited to an on-site job).
I agree with Thompson that the Myers-Briggs (one of many great tools) is an excellent tool to promote self-awareness both among managers and employees. It is especially useful in helping employees (and managers) understand if they are well-suited to working remotely or better served working in an on premise office setting. Remote is definitely not for every personality and career track.
So Know Thyself, whether you occupy the corner office or work from a kitchen table in St. Louis. If as an employee you look into yourself and can’t find your core – what motivates you – take a personality inventory or talk to a career coach and reconnect with what motivates you and will make you a successful employee, no matter where you sit. If you are a manager who questions the value of virtual employees, talk to a mentor or take a personality inventory. Explore your willingness to tolerate uncertainty and change. Probe to understand where you’re flexible and what your exact limits and expectations are.
I suspect, as Marissa Mayer rebuilds the corporate culture and adaptability of Yahoo!, she and her executive team will become more open to having remote employees again. For all the companies struggling to manage remote teams, remember to seek understanding and celebrate flexibility. For all the companies succeeding with distributed workforces, remember to maintain self-awareness and an adaptive, connected culture. The World of Work has changed from one in which everyone sits in the same building to one in which many sit remotely but share the same values and culture. Celebrate the differences, and strengthen the foundations of trust and workplace culture. Recruit and retain your talent.