Virtual Employees – The Promises and Perils of Living in a Virtual World

Where’s your avatar? Having a computer representation or “online handle” could be one of your saviors as the bar gets even higher for businesses in Michigan and around the globe. As luck would have it, technology has increased cost saving efficiencies and other opportunities for businesses employing virtual workers no longer limited by geography and other barriers that might have held them back in times past.

Although more than $1 billion has been invested in the past year as Microsoft and other mainstream companies use 3D tools to represent people and their ideas in virtual online worlds, there are “Promises and Perils” of this new virtual world, according to Adam S. Forman, principal with Miller Canfield in Detroit.

The expert in labor and employment law remarks that IBM even faced a strike in cyberspace.

Legally blind since age 10, Lillian Schwinn is an employee of Pearl Interactive Network, LLC, which hires people with disabilities to work from home. She makes sales calls and successfully markets sponsorship packages for a statewide association in Ohio.

Technology “raises more questions than answers,” he says, and “continues to blur the line between individuals’ personal and work lives.” Yet, Forman doesn’t fear what he calls progress and encourages others to embrace the virtual workforce to enhance our abilities to produce goods and services.

For example, Pearl Interactive Network (PIN) taps a virtual workforce of people with chall-enges, including employees with disabilities, mature workers, veterans and military spouses, some of whom (like Lillian Schwinn and Jerry Hypes) are taking back call center jobs previously outsourced to India.

“While we employ people with challenges, our agents are hired because of the skills they bring to the job,” explains Merry Korn, owner of PIN. Agents are home-based, using assistive technologies such as a screen reading program and speech recognition software to communicate over the phone and Internet from their home offices.

The virtual workplace is a great place for brainstorming, because ideas can be judged on their value rather than who presents them, according to Forman.

Adam S. Forman is a principal with Miller Canfield in Detroit. He practices labor and employment law with a focus on corporate discovery and information technology.

“Never give up, with the technology available today it does not matter whether you have a disability or not, you can succeed,” says PIN’s Jerry Hypes, who lost his sight seven years ago due to complications from diabetes. “The combination of technology and the right person for the job makes a very potent force to deal with your needs. The cost savings on the brick and mortar expenses will allow you to focus your corporate dollars on technology, which will go much farther to produce income for your company. Hire someone for what they can do, not for what they look like,” Hypes emphasizes.

A virtual workplace requires employees to be comfortable using computers like many young people today. But, the sales and knowledge-worker jobs best suited to telecommuting also necessitate the type of self motivation that comes from maturity. The large telecommuting job Web site,, hosts employment opportunities from a wide range of industries hiring virtual employees – from home-based startups to large, well-established companies.

Telecommuting offers solutions to multiple work life balance dilemmas, as well as excellent environmental benefits, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and cofounder of FlexJobs. Want to try it? There is no cost for employers to source, screen and recruit top candidates for telecommuting and work-at-home jobs. Job seekers, including people in Michigan now looking for work on the FlexJobs Web site, pay a monthly fee to search for hand-screened, ad-free job listings in everything from account management and administrative support to Web design and software development or technical writing.

Sara Sutton Fell is the CEO and cofounder of FlexJobs, one of the largest Web sites for telecommuting jobs.

Darleen DeRosa, a managing partner at OnPoint Consulting, emphasizes it is important to select independent individuals who want to work remotely and can handle the isolation while still contributing to your virtual team. DeRosa, who holds a Ph.D., led OnPoint Consulting’s 2008 Research Study, “Collaborating from a Distance: Success Factors of Top Performing Virtual Teams.”

One finding: Virtual teams who held a face-to-face kickoff meeting within the first 90 days perform better. More effective virtual teams compensate for lack of face-to-face contact with “virtual water coolers” and team Web sites to encourage team communication.

An expert in talent/succession management, executive assessment, and organizational assessment, DeRosa over the past decade has worked with a variety of clients including Google.

“Communication and trust are even more important when leading at a distance,” she says. DeRosa stresses the importance of not only picking a leader who is up to the challenge, but providing the skills training and supportive environment that encourages collaboration and conflict resolution.

His former employer suggested Jerry Hypes retire when the seasoned sales professional lost his sight seven years ago due to complications from diabetes. Today employed by Pearl Interactive Network, Hypes has succeeded in sales for AMT Machine Systems.

Research shows that leaders of higher performing teams often have more direct reporting relationships with their team members and can hold them accountable for results. This makes it more likely that their virtual team members with clear roles and responsibilities will share organizational goals and help achieve them.

Before Lillian Schwinn joined PIN three years ago, she had been looking for a job for nearly five years. “Do not be afraid to tap into this virtual workforce. PIN’s employees give 110 percent, are professional and very dedicated. Excellence and quality are high priorities,” Schwinn adds. “In the words of my late husband, ‘You just need someone to give you an opportunity to show them what you can accomplish!'”

Just as avatars can now graphically depict people on the Internet, today’s virtual employees who are truly “the best people for the job” can embody the new spirit of what’s best for business, employees and the customers they serve.

Formula for Success
Recommendations from OnPoint Consulting’s 2008 Research Study: “Collaborating from a Distance: Success Factors of Top Performing Virtual Teams”*

-¢ Organizations should be more deliberate when forming virtual teams by considering team composition, communication and training needs, as well as the characteristics required for the leader to successfully manage from a distance.

-¢ With multiple demands for resources, limited time, and the lack of face-to-face contact, skill building can decrease the time required for teams to begin performing at their maximum level of effectiveness.

-¢ To compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact, successful virtual teams emphasize the interpersonal dynamics of virtual collaboration and set up practices to build trust, increase transparency and help build interpersonal relationships.

-¢ Virtual teams need to compensate for the inherent lack of human contact in virtual teaming and find ways to enhance trust, engagement and productivity.

* Forty-eight virtual teams participated in the research study from March-October 2008.