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Employers thinking about allowing — and even encouraging — employees to work remotely are inundated with conflicting information these days.
On the one hand, employees are hungry for this valuable work/life option. In the United States, a Gallup survey and report on the state of the American workplace, released in February 2017, found that “flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job.” Millennial professionals now expect options in their work situations: “This is a group of professionals who see flexible work as a standard way of working, rather than a perk,” Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of Flexjobs Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, told U.S. News & World Report. Virtual employees in the United States report being more connected to their work: Those who were able to spend 60% to 80% of their time away from the office had the highest rates of engagement, according to a New York Times article about the Gallup survey.
But prominent companies that once embraced virtual teams have pulled back. Marissa Mayer, who banned telecommuting at Yahoo shortly after she took over as CEO in 2013, was one of the most visible managers to move away from the practice. She argued that “communication and collaboration” require people to be “working side-by-side” and available for impromptu meetings. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Aetna, Bank of America, IBM, and Reddit have all ended or cut back on remote-work options. Ken Matos, vice president of research at Life Meets Work, a workplace consultancy based in Park Ridge, Illinois, told the Journal that companies often retreat from offering the work-from-home option during periods of turmoil and reinvention.
Maybe those companies would have had better luck with virtual teams if they’d done things differently. Managers considering the option or looking to get the most out of their current remote policy should revisit the 2009 MIT Sloan Management Review article “How to Manage Virtual Teams.” Authors Frank Siebdrat (Boston Consulting Group in Munich, Germany), Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst (both from the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar, Germany) detail specific ways that virtual collaboration should be directed.
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Among their recommendations for the do’s and don’ts of managing dispersion:
Emphasize teamwork skills.