Are Your Employees Cut Out for Virtual Work?

Telecommuting can attract and retain employees. It can even save you money. But not all employees or companies are cut out for virtual work.

Providing the tools and technology are easy. The tough question an employer must answer is: how do we hire and manage the right teleworker?

Like employees who fill every other job, some workers are natural fits, while others seem to be the square peg forced into a round hole. Telecommuting requires different skills than working out of an office, even if the job responsibilities and requirements are exactly the same.

Recent research out of Global Integration Inc. identified the traits of successful virtual workers and telecommuters. The most successful virtual workers are self-reliant and self-motivated. That sounds like the perfect fit for an ambitious introvert, but the “lone wolf” tends not to perform very well on virtual teams. Having the knack of keeping things to themselves is not a virtue of the virtual team member. Effective virtual work teams require interdependency on others. So while self-reliance and self-motivation are critical success traits, the employee must also appreciate the need to collaborate and willingness to share common goals and responsibilities.

The ability to deal with ambiguity is another critical personality trait. People who like fixed schedules, explicit instructions, and predictability won’t generally perform very well in the virtual work setting. Virtual work requires independent thought and a willing to take initiative. That means sometimes the employee will make a mistake or go off in the wrong direction. Effective virtual workers can’t wait for every instruction or wait to be told what to do.

But both the manager and employee must acknowledge that taking initiative has risks, and that personal accountability and accepting responsibility are must-have characteristics. Employees who take feedback and criticism personally will struggle if not fail when working far from the maddening crowd.

Communication skills are also must-have job skills. Since much of the interaction a virtual worker does is verbal and written, not visual or face-to-face, he must have the ability to draft easy-to-understand and to-the-point communications. While dealing with ambiguity is a working style asset for the telecommuter, it can be a liability when it comes to communicating with others.

While offering flex time and telecommuting as an employee retention strategy has significant benefit, not all candidates or current employees can make the transition. The onus for selecting the right candidates to work from home falls upon the employer, and more specifically, human resources.

Obviously one good indicator might be experience. Has the employee worked remotely before? What were the circumstances? How effective was he or she? Was this a full-time virtual position or was the employee allowed to work from home just a day or two a week? What were his/her responsibilities? Did both the candidate and employer benefit from the arrangement, or just the worker? If the manager had an opportunity to re-hire this person again, would telecommuting even be an option they would offer?

Unfortunately most workers don’t have a solid track record on working virtual. An estimated 2.9 million employees worked primarily from home in 2009, while as many as 33.7 million worked from home at least once a month. The requirements to work remotely every day versus only on the days your child is sick or the weather is bad are vastly different. So how can an employer identify employees and candidates who are cut out for virtual work and telecommuting if past experience is not a factor?

Personality tests offer a reliable indicator of job fit for the virtual worker. Referring back to the Global Integration research I mentioned earlier, self-reliance, self-motivation, flexibility, collaborative tendencies, dealing with ambiguity, criticism tolerance, multitasking, and task closure (follow-through) are all traits and characteristics that can be assessed using a validated pre-employment assessment test. While the results of such a personality assessment are not conclusive (nor should they ever be used as the only hiring indicator), they are very accurate at identifying the high-risk candidates. And should the manager offer telecommuting as a work option, the results of many employee assessment offer insight about how best to manage, develop, and mentor the employee.

Fortune’s 2011 list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” offer telecommuting opportunities to employees. The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey reports an increase of employees who worked from home of 61 percent from 2005. With more and more companies struggling to find and retain qualified workers as well as manage costs, the number of virtual workers is sure to rise. But as with every job, not every worker is qualified to fill the position. Companies must add the ability to work virtually to their list of job competencies and be able to assess accurately the candidate’s ability or potential. Otherwise, the advantages of employing virtual workers will quickly be outweighed by lost productivity and turnover.