In the current business environment of globalisation and evolving technology, the world of work has changed dramatically. Information can be transmitted in seconds, people can be located and contacted ‘anywhere, anytime’ and mobility of the workforce means that very few roles would strictly require an employee to remain in a static office in order to perform their duties. With virtual work spaces, electronic whiteboards and teleconferencing, work teams can now be dispersed across countries and teams may not even need to meet ‘face to face’ in order to collaborate and work together. Almost gone are the days of ‘bricks and mortar’ organisations and those that resist the trends are likely to find themselves battling to offer a suitable employee value proposition to a generation Y workforce that demands flexibility and autonomy. Naturally, there are many benefits to pursuing this trend – the ability to reduce overheads; realising economies of scale and capitalising on talent and diversity that may otherwise not have been accessible.

But what are the implications of managing an ‘ever more virtual’ and remote workforce and will the value of ‘bricks and mortar’ ever truly be supplanted by technology? Managing a remote and diverse work group brings in a myriad of considerations as, at an extreme, the different employment arrangements and working environments introduced under one employer may become as diverse as the number of employees they have operating remotely. As such, it is important to consider the implications for workplace health and safety as well as for human resources policies and processes.

On the psychological side, as practitioners who manage the people side of organisations on a day to day basis, psychologists and human resources specialists are all too aware of the importance of team cohesion, collaboration and organisational culture in determining organisational success. The research on these concepts is unanimous, and my question is whether the benefits of telecommuting ultimately outweigh the benefits of traditional, team-based work practices. We know that human beings are by nature social animals and that the satisfaction they derive in a work role is often related to the camaraderie and sense of belonging they derive from being part of a team and having the interpersonal daily contact – by removing this component from the work environment, we are removing the psychological connection that people feel with their work places and the bond they create with their teams and colleagues. While there are channels for conferencing and collaboration in virtual space, the human contact is lost which invariably impacts social relationships and how people communicate.

This has a tremendous impact on the values of the organisation and the culture. How do organisations maintain a coherent set of values and strong unified culture when their people are diverse, remotely located and not constantly influenced by the social norms and shared experiences that create their collective culture and identity in an organisation? In the absence of this psychological bond with their organisations and teams, I would suggest that employees’ commitment to organisations could decrease as it is so much easier to disengage from the organisation. But what are the alternatives? Organisations cannot afford to lag technologically as they may not be able to attract the best talent and remain competitive. In addition, the benefits employees derive from working remotely, for instance increased flexibility and a better balance between their work and personal lives, should not be under-estimated and can in themselves create an employee value proposition that fosters loyalty to an organisation. Certainly, that is the case with many smaller consultancies that operate under a telecommuting model. I would argue that small businesses are ideally placed to capitalise on telecommuting as the teams are small enough to maintain regular collaboration that is less impersonal through remote forums and are also more likely to build relationships that make  regular informal contact easier for staff to initiate with team members.

However, large and geographically dispersed businesses face more of a challenge. Perhaps one alternative is to create a blended model whereby staff telecommute but undertake regular blocks working together on-site (with the frequency dependent on logistics and need) – the difficulty is that this is a resource-intensive approach that maintains the ‘brick and mortar’ overheads, coupled with the capital outlay for telecommuting technology. Alternatively, perhaps it is about regular meetings in a location that is a smaller, ‘hot-desking’ and collaborative space without the same overheads as an office. Regular social activities and functions may also be an option to bring employees together. More ideas anyone??

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