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Building your e-workplace

Want to give your employees freedom and boost their productivity? Then turn them into teleworkers! Here are some basics for the strategy.

As businesses continually seek ways to cut costs, increase revenue and spark innovation, and employees strive for a better work/life balance, a mutually beneficial solution–telecommuting–is on the rise. In the United States alone, there are approximately 28 million telecommuters currently, and the International Telework and Association Council expects that number to nearly double to 50 million by 2005.

In order for both employers and workers to get the greatest benefit, it is essential that these remote workers have the environment and tools to connect with colleagues, applications, and information to get their job done. When telecommuters are not empowered with the right environment and technology to work to their highest potential, they can experience feelings of isolation, become disconnected from the organization’s current priorities, and miss opportunities to contribute their talents. Managers of telecommuters, on the other hand, may worry about keeping track of their direct reports’ activities and accomplishments. In addition, communications concerns can crop up for both parties when reviewing important materials solely over the phone or via e-mail.

The solution that addresses the challenges of telecommuting for both employees and managers is a comprehensive e-workplace program. An e-workplace is a virtual work place that provides employees access to information and a broad set of Internet-based collaborative technologies, such as e-meetings, e-learning, and instant messaging designed to make all employees, especially telecommuters, more nimble.

An e-workplace provides users with a single point of access for the right technology tools to immediately and instantaneously access information, collaborate with their colleagues and even participate in online training courses to improve their skills. One specific aspect of an e-workplace that can streamline work for a virtual employee is having access to information customized for his or her role. For example, a salesperson might need access to information on products, customers, and competitors and need to connect with people in the organization that can help address customer issues, provide expertise, or share best practices.

Another example is an eHR application. Integrating eHR capabilities into your e-workplace enables remote workers to take care of their personal needs, such as understanding their health care benefit options or accessing personnel forms or information on company policies, without having to make a trip into a corporate location or speaking with an HR professional. Overall, an e-workplace can help businesses bolster efficiencies, leapfrog competitors and provide more flexibility to their workforce.

Benefits for your business

Many organizations already have an intranet in place and large businesses can have as many as 300 to 10,000 intranet pages, each with their own look and feel and navigational construct. In this case, employees lose productivity searching for information. By consolidating these pages into one e-workplace and integrating team-based technology solutions, employee productivity and the quality of communication across an organization can skyrocket.

With team-based technologies, users, and remote workers in particular, can instantly form virtual teams and collaborate on the fly right from the company intranet in order to respond to unpredictable market changes. For example, if your organization’s intranet includes a corporate directory with connections into team-based technologies, users can rapidly search and find colleagues with a certain expertise and see where they sit in the organization and management chain. Once armed with this valuable context, the user can initiate contact through the appropriate channels. For example, the user can see if the expert is online, click on the expert’s name and instantly contact him or her via an instant message or in an e-meeting. The user could also create a virtual team room and invite the expert to comment on documents created and posted within the team room. Without an integrated e-workplace program, employees are on their own to navigate a complex environment and find expertise.

Organizations can achieve significant business benefits through an e-workplace. By giving employees access to the information and experts they need at their fingertips, an e-workplace enables remote workers, in particular, to be more productive and efficient. It can also help organizations maintain their competitive edge by empowering all employees to respond faster to demands from customers and partners, which, in this volatile market, need to be addressed as quickly and accurately as possible.

IBM, for example, has achieved significant business benefit from its own e-workplace program. The intranet has allowed the company to cut significant costs, largely in real estate savings. The company saves an average of $10,000 per employee that goes “mobile,” meaning they give up their dedicated office space. In addition, employees conduct more than 8,000 e-meetings per month, saving the company approximately $50 million per year in reclaimed travel and productivity costs.

Streamlining the virtual team

E-workplaces can help increase efficiencies amongst virtual teams by easing collaboration. As I began to grow my own geographically dispersed team, IBM’s e-workplace was invaluable, allowing me to bring in the right expertise, regardless of their physical location.

During my search, a colleague suggested I speak with an IBMer, Brent Taylor, regarding the open position on my team. Brent is a certified project executive and a telecommuter located outside of Austin, Texas. The entire recruitment process took place over the e-workplace: phone, e-meetings, and team rooms. Our initial discussions were over the phone. Then, using the e-meeting function, Brent and I reviewed my organization’s strategy, organizational charts, presentations, and the project plans that are important to my team’s business mission. We also reviewed his prior experience, projects, and successes.

Through the team room, Brent was able to learn about the team’s composition and specific activities overall and determine if this was a good fit for him. The e-meetings were extremely productive, and Brent and I were both in agreement that both he and the team would benefit from his skills. The rest of my team is located in Albuquerque, Dallas, Bethesda, Cambridge, and New York.

As a manager of a remote team, it is essential to measure employees based on their accomplishments and actual deliverables. Supporting their activities and making sure that they are empowered and have what they need to succeed is a top priority–that starts with effective communications and teaming. Following are a few important guidelines for successfully managing a virtual team.

— Establish a purpose: Ensure that each virtual team member has a defined purpose and objectives against which they will be measured. When remote workers have goals and incentives for reaching those goals, they are more motivated and productive. Create a recommended training schedule for virtual employees via your e-workplace’s e-learning program, so that employees are learning new skills and keeping their areas of expertise honed.

— Measure the output, not the process: Since face-to-face meetings are not practical with a remote team, you must adopt other ways to communicate, seek approvals, etc. Managers of virtual teams should create an atmosphere of trust, be available through instant messaging technology for quick questions, hold regular conference calls so the team can identify when a project is getting off track and make use of instant messaging, e-meetings, and team workspaces. Managers should focus on the output of their virtual teams rather than the actual hours on the clock.

— Balance between virtual and face-to-face meetings: While e-meetings are great for keeping up with progress on a daily or weekly basis, they are not the best medium for team building. Face-to-face meetings, for example, are important for brainstorming sessions, for building trust and getting to know each other on a personal level. (I have now met Brent Taylor in person.) It is important to schedule face-to-face gatherings (I recommend once a quarter) to help foster team building, and improve rapport among team members.

— Use presence awareness to show your virtual office door is open: Presence awareness technology embedded in an e-workplace will let your reports know when you are available to discuss progress, answer a quick question or to chat about their concerns. It can also alert your staff if you are online via a mobile phone, so they know to keep messages short or call on the phone.

Most organizations understand that virtual teaming and telecommuting are necessary organizational responses to our changing global economy. With an e-workplace, employees have multiple modes of communication at their fingertips, enabling remote workers to have a higher level of interaction with more of their colleagues. An e-workplace can help businesses break down the physical barriers of a distributed workforce and quickly realize the benefits, including the ability to respond more rapidly to customers, make decisions faster and help employees be more productive.

Pam Stanford is director of IBM On Demand Workplace Solutions.

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