The Benefits of a Virtual Workforce

Telework, telecommunting, a distributed or home-based workforce – no matter what you call it – I’m a tried and true advocate! I have long felt that telecommuting has made me more productive and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work from home in a variety of roles – as a business owner, a contractor and now as a corporate employee.

In today’s digital world, the opportunities for a virtual workforce are endless and more and more companies (and employees) are embracing virtual working arrangements because of the many benefits it provides. Telework opens up new labor sources, global collaboration, reduced turnover and overall satisfaction for customers and employees; which in turn, increases productivity and drives business growth and success.

For me, having a 20 second commute to my office saves me both time and stress. When I do have to travel or when I hear about fatal car accidents on the interstate; I am reminded of the hassles (and dangers) of commuting. I have more time to spend with family and friends, can work with little to no interruptions and can control the lighting, temperature and my workspace without having to contact the purchasing or facilities department.

At VIPdesk, we are passionate about telework, as our core business provides virtual concierge and contact center solutions. We see, first hand, the many benefits of a virtual workforce and want to share our knowledge and success with others.

We were also thrilled when we found out that the Federal Government is getting serious about it too. On November 18th 2010, The Telework Enhancement Act was passed by the House of Representatives. The new bill requires each agency to establish a policy under which employees may be authorized to telework to the maximum extent possible without diminishing employee performance or agency operations.

In many cases, all that is needed for someone to telecommute is a dedicated phone line and high-speed Internet, but the most important factor is hiring the right people.

Many companies are still hesitant and uncomfortable with not having their employees on-site, even in the wake of a disaster. The biggest fear is that they won’t be able to control their employees and that their employees will watch television and do their daily chores during working hours. My response to that is if you are a competent manager, you will be able to tell, fairly quickly, based on the output and quality of their work whether they are slacking or not. If it’s clear that they are not producing; then it becomes a performance issue – as with any employee (brick and mortar or virtual).

Hiring the right people is crucial to the success of a virtual workforce, from the front-lines to management. We’ll discuss the qualities to look for below. If you put the right people in place, you should be able to trust them to produce, regardless of their location.

Benefits for Employers

Increased Productivity and Shrinkage:

  • Disaster Recovery and Inclement Weather – Telecommuters are able to work during office closures due to inclement weather. There is no lost time due to driving in bad conditions and the time saved can be spent working.
  • Uninterrupted and focused work – Working from home allows for large blocks of uninterrupted time without distractions.
  • More time to work – Time saved commuting can be spent working
  • Reduced sick time – Employees who work at home take considerably less sick time than employees who commute to work. Some studies say the reduction is upwards of 25%. Also, at-home workers are less likely to get sick, as they are not surrounded by a lot of people with colds and the flu.

Reduced Real Estate Costs and Overhead Expenses: In the contact center world, the cost of a workspace is approximately $800-$3,000 per agent annually; therefore a call center with 20 home-based agents can save a company upwards of $60K per year. Some companies can eliminate their corporate office altogether – if so, additional money saved on rent, utilities and taxes are much more significant.

Reduced Labor Costs: Salaries fluctuate based on geography. Employers with a virtual workforce can hire lower cost workers in suburban labor markets saving a significant amount of money. Also, due to the cost savings that the employees will gain, companies can pay telecommuting employees less per hour based on their reduced expenses.

Expanded Talent Pool: Employers who have a virtual workforce are not limited to employees in their local area, giving them the ability to hire highly qualified employees across the United States and beyond.

Additionally, companies can tap into new labor sources and provide more opportunities for employees with otherwise compromising circumstances, such as:

  • Employees with disabilities or those on short-term disability with modified or limited job duties.
    • On maternity, paternity, or eldercare leave.
    • Retired employees or those approaching retirement who are interested in working in a reduced capacity.
    • Employees who need to relocate as a consequence of dependent care or spousal responsibilities (i.e., spouses of military personnel or executives)

Elimination of Relocation Expenses: There is no longer a need to pay relocation expenses for top talent.

Reduced Travel Expenses: With the technologies available, there is no longer a need to travel for meetings (and in many cases, conferences). Meetings can be held virtually face-to-face with programs such as GoToMeeting or Skype. Additionally, virtual conferences are also becoming more common place – with specialty software that mimics a live conference (with virtual lobbies, lounges and conference rooms).

Access to a flexible workforce: Employers are more likely to obtain employees that are willing (and need) to work non-conventional hours. For example, someone that cannot afford daycare may be willing to work nights when their spouse is home and available to care for their child.

Additionally, employees that can work from home are more willing to work more often and on weekends and holidays, which can help accommodate seasonal workload fluctuations.

Happier Employees: Telecommuters are happier. Employees value telecommuting and many – 33% – consider telecommuting the main draw for new hires, according to a 2009 survey of 1,400 chief financial officers conducted by Menlo Park, California-based Robert Half International Inc. In a recent survey of Gen Y employees, working from home ranked 10th (14.3 percent) on a list of important factors candidates look for when selecting a job.

HR departments and executives are always looking at new and enticing benefits to obtain top talent – Telecommuting is a benefit that employee’s desire and one that you don’t have to pay for, it actually saves you money – and having happier employees increases customer satisfaction and productivity, no matter what business you’re in.

Reduced Employee Turnover: Happier employees are more likely to stay with a company for an extended period of time. As we know, labor costs are generally the most significant portion of a company’s operating budget. Adding turnover to the equation significantly increases those costs. In order for companies to control (and reduce) their operational expenses, they must find innovative ways of attracting and retaining top talent. Giving them the benefit of telecommuting (a benefit they want) can do just that.

Benefits for Employees

Increased Opportunities for all Workers: A virtual workforce opens up opportunities for disabled veterans, persons with disabilities, older workers who desire to remain in or need to reenter the workforce and military spouses or spouses of executives that may need to relocate often. Additionally, it opens up opportunities outside of the employee’s local area.

Better Work/Life Balance: As commuting is essentially eliminated, employees can spend more time with their family and friends. Childcare or elder-care can be more easily accommodated.

Increased Productivity:

  • Time Saved – In some heavily populated areas, commuters spend up to 10 hours per week traveling to and from work (that’s 40 hours per week and 2,080 hours per year). With the lack of a commute, home-workers can devote a greater part of their day to their job.
  • Less Disruptions –Working from home prevents the often unnecessary and/or unwelcome interruptions by co-workers that hinder productivity. Think water-cooler chit-chat and the loud cubicle neighbor.

Increased Overall Quality of Life:

  • No Dress Code Required – In many HR employee satisfaction surveys, the ability to dress down is a desired benefit. Home-workers can dress as comfortably as they want every day.
  • No Office Politics – Office politics are non-existent allowing for a stress-free work environment.
  • Customized Workspace – Home workers can control the lighting, temperature and their workspaces allowing for a comfortable working environment.

Economic Benefits: Employment expenses for home workers are significantly reduced or eliminated.

  • Public transportation costs such as bus or train fare.
  • Personal transportation costs such as gas, maintenance and tolls. In urban areas these costs can easily exceed $4-5K per year. Some may even decide not to have an automobile, thus eliminating the cost of an automobile and/or finance charges on an auto loan.
  • Costs associated with lunches, breaks, pot-lucks, birthdays or other work based social gatherings.
  • Wardrobe Expenses – There is no longer a need for formal business attire.

In addition, many home workers may be able to claim some home office and utility costs as personal income tax deductions, further adding to their real income.

Benefits for Everyone

Decreased Carbon Footprint: The average length of a commute is approximately 30 miles each way. This commute can emit over 7,000 pounds of carbon into the air annually. Telecommuting lowers the carbon footprint, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and improves air quality for everyone on earth and for future generations. Additionally, by telecommuting we can increase the likelihood of becoming self-sustainable and reducing our dependence on foreign energy.

  • Utilities – Utility costs are reduced for brick and mortar buildings with fewer workers onsite.
  • Paper consumption – The use of paper is significantly reduced, as much communication is done electronically.
  • Office Equipment and Supplies – There is less need for unsustainable office equipment and supplies, e.g. cubicles, computers, printers, toner, desks, chairs, etc.
  • Refuse – The amount of refuse is decreased, due to the reduced amount office supplies and packed lunches.

Better use of Rescue Personnel: With less people on the road, there are fewer traffic accidents and less traffic congestion, allowing rescue personnel the ability to tend to issues that can’t be avoided.

Better Use (or reduction) of Taxes: The need for maintaining or building expensive transportation infrastructures is also reduced, allowing tax payer money to be used for more beneficial endeavors.

Increased Life Expectancy: Telecommuting reduces the risk of being involved in a fatal car accident, therefore, increasing the odds of a longer life.

Better Health: Telecommuting is a great way to help you, and your team, remain healthy. Workplace germs can no longer be spread – and it eliminates frustration and contempt when your office neighbor comes in with the flu.

Increased Collaboration: It is now easy to collaborate with a global team for little to no cost to you. No longer do you miss out on the opportunity to meet with someone due to budget or travel restraints.

More Productive Meetings: Virtual meetings, via telephone or teleconference, tend to be more productive and concise. There is less chatter about the surroundings or the weather. In some cases, teleworkers can multi-task if they are on a non-productive meeting, without being noticeably rude.

As you can see, the move to a virtual workforce can provide significant benefits to everyone; however, keep in mind that it will not work for every company or individual.

It is important to evaluate and research all of the factors involved and have a process in place before closing your office doors. It is equally as important to note that not all managers are cut out to supervise telecommuters and not all individuals are cut out for telecommuting. The A type micro-manager probably wouldn’t be the best person to put over a telecommuting staff. Managing employees remotely can be very challenging, and it is ultimately the manager’s responsibility for ensuring that the work gets done.

Whoever you hire needs to be motivated, self-disciplined, and comfortable with the type of work they will be performing. People who do their best work independently are often the best fit for telecommuting. If someone is very social and needs to have regular interaction with others, they probably won’t be a good fit for a telecommuting position.

For companies that are interested in transitioning their workforce to a home based model, but aren’t quite ready yet; we recommend implementing an occasional telecommuting arrangement, say every Friday or two days per week, so that you can be ready to when the need arises or a disaster (hurricane or blizzard) strikes.

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