My company has officially entered the “Virtual Employee” age. We’ve now hired our first employees whose jobs will be performed predominantly away from the home office—with no real disadvantage to those who work locally.

This may not seem like much, but it’s really quite an accomplishment when you think about it. For years, companies like ours have supported traveling executives with laptops and people working from remote offices or from home using a dial-up connection. Now we have the ability to hire people who may never spend a significant amount of time in the office.

For my company, the decision to hire some employees who will work remotely allowed us to hire and retain the best people. Many people are tired of the traditional 8-to-5, commute-to-the-office, limited-flexibility jobs—especially in the high-tech world. It’s easier to attract the cream of the crop if we can offer them a better work environment where they can work 50% or more of their time away from the office. We’ve also been able to pick up a couple of ex-dot-commers who want to work for the company but, because they were burned by their most recent work situation, are loathe to pick up their families and move.

So how do you work successfully on a long-term, remote, virtual basis? It requires a mix of organizational engineering and some effective technology planning.

Set goals and measure progress
It’s easy to jump headlong into the technology planning and implementation issues that support this work environment, but the simple fact is that without considering the human factors first, any virtual employee initiative is doomed to fail.

The first issue to recognize is that it’s easier to support a virtual employee who doesn’t have others reporting to him or her. Although employees who are not managers may be easier to support remotely, it doesn’t mean that they won’t need a firm guiding hand (or a swift kick in the pants) to motivate them. Of course, until we have “Virtual Boots 1.0” installed in each office or cubicle, this will be somewhat problematic. So the real key to a successful virtual employee experience is the ability to set realistic, measurable, attainable goals and to have a mechanism to review or update those goals regularly.

Most managers realize that annual goals for employees must, by nature, be so generic that they end up being practically meaningless. Of course, these same managers generally aren’t willing to do the work required to set, track, and evaluate employee goals on a more frequent basis (quarterly or semi-annually). But any virtual employee initiative is likely to fall apart without constant attention to short-term, measurable goals.

Since you don’t have the ability to “drop in” and check out a remote worker’s progress, you must have a way to constantly and consistently measure progress. A well-planned, quarterly objective determination and measurement system will solve this problem. (And such a system is not a bad idea for most organizations to adopt anyway, regardless of whether they have remote employees or not.)

Infrastructure needs
If you can resolve the organizational issues, then your next challenge is to make sure the infrastructure is in place to support remote or virtual users. The first requirement for the effective virtual worker is to have access to high-speed communications at the location where they will work most of the time.

In this instance, high speed means a 256K or higher, always-on connection like a DSL line or a cable modem. You need a connection of this speed to support minimal video conferencing (point-to-point, NetMeeting-style) capability. This “always on” connection also allows the virtual employee and other employees in the company to “walk into each others’ offices for a chat” using Instant Messaging (IM) technology.

We’ve found it very effective inside the office walls to use IM for presence detection and status reporting (“out to lunch,” “busy”). In fact, most of our current employees use IM to discuss issues or problems whether they’re across the hall in the office or across the country. The ability to add others to an IM conversation means that the “electronic water cooler” conversation can happen with a large number of simultaneous participants.

In addition to these synchronous communication methods, you also need to have reliable, accessible, and easy-to-use e-mail and calendaring capabilities. I’ve been traveling extensively for years running various companies and projects, and I have used e-mail as my primary means of communication. It’s much more concise and convenient than phone conversations and provides the additional benefit of automatic documentation.

Virtual employees can also benefit from opening up their calendars to co-workers and managers to schedule remote meetings or conferences. If updated regularly and used as a time-management tool, the employee’s manager can also use the calendar to review the employee’s progress.

The human touch
We will still require our virtual employees to spend an average of one day per week in the office. Even our technological advances can’t replace the value of face-to-face discussions, shooting pool together, or discussing issues over a hot meal. But by providing a way to recruit and retain virtual employees, I think we can expand our pool of applicants and raise the overall quality and diversity of our work force.
Do you currently employ any virtual workers? Have they been successful? Let us know your thoughts and experiences with this issue by starting a discussion below or by sending us an e-mail.