The growth of telework and virtual teams in midmarket companies

May 8, 2008 by  

This past week I was interviewed for an article in eWeek entitled Telework Migrates to the Midmarket. The reporter was asking me why I thought midmarket companies (which she defined as companies with 50 – 1000 employees) were starting to embrace more telework and virtual teamwork. While it has been my observation that companies of all sizes, not just midmarket companies, are embracing the concept of having their employees work from outside the office – the question made me think – why the increase specifically in companies of this size? I think there are 2 main reasons for this . . .

My initial, more obvious thought, is that it is largely due to the increase in easy-to-use, affordable technology that companies of any size can implement without the need of a large IT staff – such as web based collaboration tools, remote access to computers, and web meeting services. These subscription services allow companies access to all the tools they need to work from anywhere without the IT headaches for implementation. Even solo professionals can take advantage of these tools.

What occurred to me is that while telework has been approached formally by large companies for years, many midmarket companies have been working this way – but in a more ad hoc approach. By adhoc I mean without a planned strategy for this shift in workstyle. Many of these companies realized that as the world of work had changed so had the nature of their teams and their office. Their employees were not just working from their desks and cubicles, but often from home, hotels, or client sites. Their teams were now made up of not only internal people, but also consultants, vendors, and outsourced specialists.

The difference is that these midmarket companies often take a reactive approach to this change in the workplace. Upon realizing their teams are distributed they supply them with technology (like laptops and cellphones) to help them, but far too frequently it stops there. No real strategy or thought has been given to setting up shared guidelines or making sure that their managers are trained in how to properly manage a distributed or virtual team. This lack of planning far too often results in a disjunct team that suffers from communication problems, lost productivity, and an erosion of trust among team members. I believe this is where much of the negative viewpoints surrounding virtual teamwork stem from. Too many virtual team initiatives and distributed work programs have failed because of a lack of research, planning, and training.

What I find encouraging is this seems to be changing. Organizations are waking up to the fact that there is a need for this type of planning and training. We are increasingly being approached by the midmarket companies this reporter was asking me about with interest in providing our on-demand workshop for their remote managers and virtual team members.

They have realized that to be successful in this changing world of work – they need to do more than just throw technology at the problem. It starts with a shift in perspective. Both the perspective of how you define “work” for information workers and the role of a manager when managing a distributed team. They are encouraged when we explain that they don’t need to throw away all their old management strategies and style, but instead need to make some adjustments, particularly when it comes to the area of communication. These are some of the “small changes that lead to big results” we are always talking about.

While I certainly believe that widespread broadband, the growth of wi-fi, and access to technology is a big piece of this puzzle – it seems that the midmarket company’s acceptance of the need for guidelines, training, and a planned approach have contributed to the growth of successful virtual teamwork and telework among these organizations. I applaud this new found wisdom!