You see them in coffee shops, restaurants, and bookstores — anyplace with Wi-Fi, power outlets, and a decent chair. Two percent battery life is the kiss of death, second only to loud noises, which send them scurrying like Dracula from light, clutching their laptops and pressing their smartphones to their ears.
I’m talking about the legions of virtual workers, who account for an increasing portion of the workforce these days. As more companies (including ours) embrace virtual work arrangements, there’s no denying the perks of working virtually.
There’s time for everything — your work and your workout. One afternoon recently, the chief human resources officer of a large company called me about a reference for a senior executive I knew. I could hear booming and clanking noises in the background and loud breathing. “Where are you?” I asked. Without missing a beat, the person replied, “Hang on — let me step out of the gym.”
While that may have been unheard of just a few years ago, today it’s pretty acceptable, because people are working everywhere and at any time. That’s why it strikes me as curious when companies say they want to move to a four-day workweek or other flexible work schedules when the truth is that technology and a 24/7 mentality keep people connected all the time — for better or worse, probably the latter.
It’s been reported that working virtually can cause feelings of isolation and loneliness, particularly among the younger generations. Is that really surprising? Absolutely not. Despite all of the technological advances, there is simply no substitute for human interaction. If someone feels isolated, they’re probably not happy. And if they’re not happy, they’re not motivated. And if they’re not motivated, there’s no way they’re going to outperform.
Plus, when someone is known as the “work-from-home person,” it can be difficult to overcome. Even if they’re recognized for being a great individual contributor, the perception may be that they lack “leadership potential.” Unless a company is wired for managers and leaders to work virtually, people need to be aware of this possible career trap.
Let virtual workers know that, to avoid hitting this wall, they need to strategically (and physically) be SEEN:
S: Show productivity — It’s more than just performance. It’s about taking control, setting goals, and communicating regularly with the boss. Whether someone works virtually or in an office every day, they need to initiate a dialogue with their boss around priorities and short-term goals and how they can contribute to team success in a big way.
They need to own performance objectives, by setting expectations with their boss for what they’re going to deliver and when. They should establish a series of check-ins to make sure they’re on track and update their boss on what’s been accomplished.
E: Engage with the team — Culture is everything, and people who work remotely will have a harder time weaving into the company culture. As an example, they won’t have the advantage of team-building that happens in the moment, from spontaneous lunches to discussions in the office kitchen.
Even when they dial in for meetings, virtual workers can’t be part of that casual meeting-after-the-meeting. To compensate, they need to find other ways to engage — socially, by FaceTime, WeChat, phone, and videoconference. And, equally important, they need to…
E: Enter the office strategically — When people sit in the same room and start talking, collective genius can be born. To be part of that magic, virtual workers need to enter the office to engage with others. This isn’t just about meeting leaders, though. Virtual workers need quality face time with colleagues — lunch or coffee together, for example — to see and hear them and be seen and heard.
N: Never forget the surroundings — We’ve all taken that impromptu call just as the flight is about to board. That’s not what I’m talking about here. This is about planning for when and where to take a scheduled or more formal call.
It’s fine for a virtual worker to take a call while camped out at the coffee shop, despite the chatter. But that’s not the case for scheduled calls when unexpected background noises boom into everyone else’s earbuds — the barking dog, the doorbell, the microwave door, and (dare we say it) the toilet flush. You’re about to meet your virtual employee for the first time in a video chat session. What should you do? How can you make sure this meeting goes well? You might be tempted to dive right into work, but that’s not always the best idea. Sure, it means cutting down on how much time is spent in conversation, but it also means risking an awkward and uncomfortable introduction where there was no chance of one before! Here are some icebreaker questions for virtual meetings that will help get your new remote employees acquainted with each other.
And while I’m at it, too often people think the mute button has magical powers. Mute isn’t permission to multitask on other things or to slip off the call “unnoticed.” Last week, five of us were on a call. When someone asked “Michael” what he thought, there was silence — eerie silence. After what seemed like an eternity, Michael piped in. Obviously, I couldn’t help but wonder what else he was doing. So, while it’s okay to go “on mute” as a courtesy because of background noise, people should stay engaged.
The virtual work phenomenon is here to stay, and it’s only going to involve more people over time. To be successful, virtual workers need to be SEEN.
Gary Burnison is CEO of management consulting and recruiting firm Korn Ferry.