Working in a Virtual World

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There’s a quiet revolution happening in the business world. Thanks to a rapidly changing workforce and new technologies, employers and employees alike are rethinking the way work gets done. The congested morning traffic, the appropriate office attire, the nine-to-five grind in a small cubicle, the maddeningly slow evening commute home again – these are now a distant memory for more and more workers in this wired economy.

That’s because a growing number of companies are embracing the idea of virtual work – allowing employees to work from home. And people of all ages are taking advantage of this new way or working. But virtual work (or telework or telecommuting) is especially attractive to older individuals who want a more relaxed way of life yet are not ready for retirement. Virtual employees can work from home, the cottage, their timeshare in Florida or the local coffee shop – anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection.

For many, virtual work means the flexibility of setting their own hours, allowing them to take an afternoon off for a golf game or do a stint in the garden and then pick up their workday in the evening or early morning. Virtual work is the perfect solution for people seeking a better work-life balance (just eliminating the daily commute can free up one or two hours a day), but it can also significantly reduce work-related expenses, saving a small fortune in business clothes, gas and car maintenance. Virtual work is also “green” and reduces one’s environmental footprint.

Employers benefit as well. For organizations trying to retain or recruit highly skilled older workers, technology allows them to offer employees considering retirement the flexibility to keep working in a way that suits them. Whether that’s full-time, part-time, or contract, from home or from another non-office location, virtual work is becoming an important weapon in any company’s attraction and retention arsenal. Another bonus for employers: virtual workers are also cost-effective, reducing the need for office space – a key factor for young companies looking to expand. Best of all, study after study has shown that virtual workers take less time off because of minor illnesses, weather or transportation issues and are actually more productive than their in-office counterparts.

Staying focused

While virtual work has many advantages, it also has its own unique challenges. After years of structured office life, some find it difficult to stay focused working from home – the lawn needs mowing, family members are distracting, errands must be run. But with some time and practice, most people eventually settle into a productive routine. Here are some tips:

  • Establish a routine. It’s still helpful to have a daily routine even if your hours are flexible – especially when you’re new to telework. Start and end your workday at the same time every day and take regular lunch and coffee breaks.
  • Set boundaries. Establish when you’re “on duty” and when you’re not. This is important not only for those new to virtual work; experienced virtual workers may also find it difficult to separate their work from their home life. Some managers may feel that employees working from home are on call 24/7, and some workers may feel the need to toil in the evening or at weekends.
  • Don’t mix work and personal tasks. Don’t prepare dinner while talking to a client or take breaks to do the ironing or vacuum. Do the same thing you would do if you worked at your company’s premises – work during set hours, play during other set hours.
  • Minimize distractions. Make sure friends and family know and respect the fact that even though you’re home, you’re working, and that the same guidelines apply regarding interruptions.
  • Get organized. Is your home office set up properly? For example, do you have enough space? Can you close the door? Do you have the right equipment? Is it comfortable? Having a properly equipped and organized home office helps keep you focused on the tasks at hand.

Tackling loneliness

The one thing most people find difficult about virtual work is the isolation. No more kibitzing at the water cooler, no more discussing last night’s game or TV show with colleagues during coffee breaks, no more lunchtime fun with work friends and no more informal brainstorming with colleagues. Equally important is that virtual workers often feel left out of the loop regarding training or career advancement opportunities.

Virtual workers have to work a little harder to keep connected and visible. Try the following:

  • Keep in touch with colleagues through emails, instant messaging and phone calls. In other words, use technology to network and maintain professional friendships. Pick up the phone and just say hello to a team member.
  • Attend social events. Make an effort to show up for holiday parties, retirement celebrations, company picnics, service awards and other events. If you can’t attend, send a card or call in your best wishes.
  • Make regular office visits. Even if it’s just once a month, schedule regular trips to your company’s office for meetings and to touch base with co-workers. This not only maintains your visibility but is an excellent opportunity for creative brainstorming and problem-solving with colleagues. Teleconferencing, email, phone calls, instant messaging and access to your company’s server may allow you to work from any location, but nothing beats face-to-face discussions to get the creative juices flowing, maintain enthusiasm and motivation and renew focus. These are also great opportunities to spend coffee breaks and lunches with work colleagues. In addition, regular visits keep you in touch with the “big picture,” that is, how your work connects to ongoing organizational or departmental goals.
  • Volunteer for committees, projects and other activities. Fundraising for the annual United Way drive, being involved in the company’s social committee or helping organize the office party are examples of great ways to stay connected and maintain your visibility in the corporation.

For older individuals especially, the benefits of working virtually far outweigh the challenges. Freed from the stresses and strains of commuting, office politics and cubicle life, they can continue busy and productive careers but at the same time enjoy a physically, emotionally and socially healthier lifestyle. Virtual work can offer the best of both worlds.

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