Pros and cons of virtual staff
Virtual staff are neither robots nor holograms. They are employees of your company who work remotely, not in your office. A virtual employee is not a freelancer, it is someone dedicated to your team.
Sometimes virtual staff can be employed by another company like an overseas virtual staff agency and you pay for their service. Sometimes it’s as simple as an employee who works from home.
Agnes Vacca, Partner in Charge at KPMG Enterprise, says technology nowadays is fantastic and if you have VPN access to your company’s systems or your software is in the cloud, you can be somewhere else and have the whole office at your fingertips.
She says a major benefit of virtual staff is that you can access specific expertise that’s not available near your office.
“For example, we have a staff member that spends one week in Adelaide and three weeks in Karratha, who works and collaborates with our Perth team. He needed this arrangement for family reasons,” she says.
“By allowing someone to work remotely means you may retain employees or access talent you might not have otherwise got.”
There are many cost benefits to remote personnel:
- Working space: You don’t have to provide an office or space for virtual staff, which means savings in utility bills, travel, rent, etc, especially if you’re in a prime location like the CBD.
- Labour force: Depending where your employees/staff are, and currency exchange rates, you can access more diverse and potentially more cost-effective staff.
- Productivity: Anecdotally, virtual staff have a higher productivity because they focus on the specific task and do not have to deal with office distractions or unnecessary bureaucracy, which can slow things down.
- Retention: There is a high monetary cost and corporate knowledge loss when staff leave, so by allowing valuable staff to work virtually, these costs are saved and the knowledge retained.
For example, an employee may like working with you but can’t be in the office for personal reasons like family or a physical challenge.
“In one of my friends’ businesses, the husband of an employee went to work in London. My friend said ‘you’re much too valuable for us to lose, how about you stay working for us in London’. It’s a really big cost to find and train someone new,” Vacca says.
- Saves time: If virtual staff are overseas it can make a project happen quicker because people can work in opposite time zones. For example, a document can be created in Perth, edited, reviewed and finished in Indianapolis while Perth employees sleep, and then ready to sign off and send when the Perth employees are at work the next morning. Working like this significantly reduces the time of a project or time to market.
Some pitfalls are:
- Good quality internet and phone connection: “If you don’t have the connectivity, that’s where you lose efficiency and employees can get frustrated,” Vacca says.
- Technology: You need to make sure you have excellent technology, both in computers and phones, and software systems such as video conferencing and collaboration platforms so productivity isn’t hindered. This infrastructure can be costly. You also need to make sure there is good support and understanding of these systems for your virtual employees.
- Isolation: While some staff members feel isolated by working alone, others thrive. However, much of the communication for virtual employees is task oriented. A business needs to be aware of this and consider possible assistance in this area – it could be regular phone conversations that aren’t related to tasks, or it could be remembering to invite the staff member to social activities.
- Culture: As virtual employees aren’t visible on a day to day basis, Vacca says a business with virtual employees needs a “culture where output is valued, and less emphasis on the hours someone has worked. It needs to be a relationship based on empowerment and trust”.
- Collaboration problems: With emails and phone conversations, we miss out on the non-verbal cues that makes up a huge part of our communication skills. Then if employees from different cultures are involved, things can be perceived differently, which may lead to conflict.
- Security: You need to make sure all your systems and data are secure. Very secure.
“Having remote staff requires a different way of working, it requires a lot of trust, but there are many benefits,” Vacca says.
“This is also how more people are wanting to work, so you may be able to keep someone working with you, rather than lose valuable corporate knowledge and incur the cost to retrain someone else.”