The all-virtual organization, devoid of headquarters and leaving it up to employees to make their own workspaces. is functional, and it works. Pew Research Center recently estimated that about a third of U.S. workers (35%) who can work from home now do so all the time. But this is down from 43% in January 2022 and 55% in October 2020 – but still up from only 7% before the pandemic.
The question is, can such organizations ensure the same opportunities — and sense of belonging — for their dispersed workforces? “One of the biggest challenges with working virtually is the degraded ability to measure the social barometer of the workplace,” says Timothy Golden, professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Virtual workers are less able to judge how others react to workplace events, gage their potential responses to issues, and predict how colleagues will view issues that arise.”
Management’s appetite for all-virtual workplaces also seems to have diminished in recent months. times. “On balance, business leaders and executives seem to embrace more flexibility with in-office work compared to pre-Covid times, but the majority of executives are resisting a 100% virtual workforce for many positions,” says Marni Helfand, chief HR officer for The Planet Group. “Over the last six months, almost 60% of our recruiters have seen a decrease in the number of fully remote positions available.”
There are business leaders who find virtual workplaces to be ideal. Stanford Rose Associates, for example, got rid of their physical offices in late 2019, relates Mark Phillips, who leads a subsidiary. “We joined many companies in efforts to figure out how to create a positive work culture in a virtual environment,” he explains. “I have travelled to meet with all of our employees over the years since 2019, so we have had some in-person meetings. To date, we have not gathered everyone into one place at the same time.”
Helfand agrees that “all employees – with the exception of certain job functions that necessitate in-person work— could function long term in a fully remote environment,” Helfand says. At the same time, she cautions that 100% virtual work may not be suitable for those early in their careers. “For example, a certain percentage of our new recruiters are right out of college,” she explains. “With this being their first real job, they have a lot of learning to do. That is not possible when 100% virtual.”
In addition, virtual workers are often hampered by the fact that “informal communication is often impacted when people work virtually, and because virtual workers can’t just passively observe others easily if they work at home,” says Golden.
With an entirely remote workforce, “it may be possible or even easy to love a job or a manager, but it’s difficult to love a company,” Helfand says. “An employee may appreciate the work, the benefits, or the work/life balance, a connection to the culture of the company itself would be very difficult to maintain — or even foster to begin with.”
Still, working remotely does not affect employees’ career prospects. In a study of career prospects, “we found that remote workers experienced the same number of promotions as in-office workers,” Golden recounts. “The study found that remote workers fared well compared to their in-office counterparts, but that there were some additional considerations that needed attention if they were to experience the same career success as their in-office colleagues.“
These include “ensuring that virtual workers continue to have informal conversations with coworkers in the workplace, and structure activities so that there are opportunities to chit chat with coworkers about their views on workplace issues and events,” says Golden. “It takes a bit more discipline and planning, since virtual workers don’t just bump into coworkers in common areas such as hallways and the elevator, but with effort virtual workers can compensate.”
It’s important for companies to evaluate career-advancement opportunities in a remote environment “by looking not only at the job itself but the individual performing the job,” Helfand advises. “While career development is unique to the individual and the job, I think in almost all cases, career advancement will be negatively impacted by 100% virtual work. While of course there are exceptions to this, when comparing two otherwise equal employees, when choosing between a remote employee and an in-person employee for a promotion, almost all companies will choose the employee whom they can interact with face-to-face.”
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