Teleworker or Telecommuter? Terms for Today’s Workforce

April 29, 2014

video conference

There are many terms used to describe workers nowadays. ‘Telecommuters’ made their way into the virtual office as early as the mid-1970s. ‘Teleworkers’ followed just over a decade later. Now we have ‘remote’ employees and ‘distributed’ teams. Is there a difference? (Admittedly, I tend to use some of these terms interchangeably.) More importantly, does it really matter? For some organizations, especially large organizations, it can be important to define how employees work if there are different requirements, policies, provisions, or benefits for these different types of work arrangements. From research and speaking with a number of organizations, here are the most commonly used terms and their definitions:

Flextime/Flexwork: Working a full or part-time schedule, but adjusting start and end times to accommodate personal needs or commitments which allow employees more choices in managing their work schedule.

Telework: Working a full or part-time schedule from a location other than an employer’s designated workplace. Telework includes working from a home site office, co-working/telework center, or anywhere else that is outside a traditional corporate or government office.

Telecommute: Often used synonymously with the word ‘telework.’ Historically, telecommuting was defined as using technology to work anywhere that reduces commuting time. In many organizations, telecommuting refers to part-time work-from-home while telework is fulltime work-from-home status.

Remote Working: Working in a location where the employee will have no physical interaction with customers/clients or other employees. Usually refers to arrangements where employees have no access to an employer’s workplace.

Workplace Flexibility: Defining how, when and where work gets done that is mutually synergistic for both employers and employees. It is a commitment from employers to build a more flexible organization culture to meet employee needs for work-life integration (in a more seamless way).

Mobility: The ability of employees, with appropriate tools, technology and flexible workplace policies, to perform work either inside or outside an organization in a way that accommodates multiple modes of working. In some organizations, “mobile” workers are those that have access to the employer’s office locations but travel frequently are expected to work regardless of location.

Distributed Work Teams (a.ka. Virtual Teams): Teams in which at least one team member is not geographically located with the rest of the team. Teams may work together permanently or on a temporary basis and may cut across organizational/functional groups.

Organizations may tailor or define terminology to meet their needs; however, it is always a good practice to ensure work arrangements are clearly defined to all employees.

Good luck,


**The list above was taken from the book Workshift.


Improving Collaboration in Virtual Teams

September 24, 2013

virtual collaboration

There are many opinions and perceptions about collaborating remotely or within a virtual team.  Many assume that collaboration decreases as the geographic distance between team members increases.  But is there any truth to this?  Do virtual teams have it harder than teams that are co-located?  The answer is yes.  Research has shown that virtual teams face more challenges than their face-to-face counterparts.

First, virtual teams communicate less effectively than face-to-face teams, even as they communicate more frequently.  As you may know, a greater volume of communication does not necessarily lead to better communication.  On the contrary, having more messages than your inbox can handle and being inundated with information can actually lead to more confusion, not less.

Second, conversations in virtual teams have been shown to be more task focused, to the exclusion of social interaction.  Although this effect lessens over time, intuitively it makes sense.  It takes a while to build and grow virtual relationships.  However, an extreme task focus may lead to less effective communication and weaken relational links between team members.   A lack of social communication is also associated with lower trust and cohesion in the team, along with difficulties in establishing a shared knowledge base.  Obviously, this can negatively impact team performance.

Fortunately for virtual team leaders, research also provides strategies on how to overcome these challenges.  These strategies fall into 2 major categories:

Increasing social identity within the team 

To increase engagement within remote or virtual teams we need to first think about social identity.  Social identity theory basically says that we all find ways to identify with various groups and the more we identify with a group, the more likely behave in a manner in line with the interests of the group, putting our own needs and desires aside.   Greater identification with a group can leads to greater trust and cohesion, better communication and cooperation, and ultimately better performance.

So how do we do that?

You may already be familiar with the stages of team development – forming, storming, norming, and performing.  Think about that first stage: forming.  How do you select people to become part of the team?  In some organizations I have worked with, leaders consciously select team members based on their experience and past performance working within a virtual team.  Having team members that are comfortable and adept at working virtually from the beginning can help the forming stage go smoothly.

Additionally, it may be helpful during the early stages of team formation for team members to meet face-to-face meetings before engaging virtually.  This can help foster higher trust, improved socialization, and closer interpersonal relationships.  (Of course this depends on logistics and budget).

Lastly, don’t forget to make time for social interaction.  To some, this may be seen as a waste of time.  Remember, if communication within the team becomes too task focused, it can eventually erode team performance.  Use ice breakers when the team first meets to start building relationships or reserve a little time during recurring team meetings to socialize and ensure people are comfortable around each other.

Leveraging the right technology

Technology also plays a big part in how virtual teams collaborate.  Communicating solely over email and conference calls can make collaboration difficult.  Thankfully, the tools and technology available are getting better and better.

High quality, affordable videoconferencing is accessible to all of us and can make a big difference in virtual teams.  In a study that compared how users collaborate virtually with or without video, users unsurprisingly wanted video.  Users believed that video added value to their interactions and made their interactions more satisfying.  If you are not already using video within your teams, you should start.

Also, there are a number of tools on the market that enable teams to collaborate, from meeting applications to document storage and content management to social networks.  All of these applications can enrich the team experience and allow for better communication and collaboration.  Too often I find teams not exploring or experimenting with new tools but complaining about how difficult it is to work on a virtual team.  Virtual team leaders can take advantage of what is available today.

In summary, virtual teams may have struggled in the past but it doesn’t have to be that way.  You may find with a little effort that the experience can be just as good, and in some cases better, than if you and your teammates were face to face.

Good luck,



The Never-Ending Quest to Write a Better Email

April 2, 2013


Considering how long email has been around, you would think that most people would have this down by now.  The length, content, and style can be a source of frustration for many recipients.  Unfortunately, email has become the primary means of communicating for many companies.  Ironically, I constantly see something like “written communications” in performance appraisals or job descriptions, yet few organizations I’ve worked with offer any sort of training or guidelines to help employees in this regard.  Here are a few quick guidelines to think about before you hit the Send button:

  1. Use alternate means of communication.  Before you draft your email, think about how else you could get your message across or query answered.  If it is a simple, straightforward question that needs an immediate answer, use instant messaging or send a text.  Better yet, pick up the phone and try calling the person to talk live.  In many cases, email should be the last, not the first choice.
  2. Be careful with the “Reply All” button.  People I work with have a fascination with the Reply All button, especially when responding to a large email distribution list.  You may be clogging up someone’s inbox by replying to everyone.  Ask yourself if everyone really needs to be included before responding.  If you are asking a large audience a question, read point 1 above.  Do you have an internal discussion board, blog, or other social media to get others involved?  If so, use that instead.
  3. Keep it brief.  Since many people have an inbox with hundreds of emails stacked up, it’s likely they’re only going to spend approximately 1 minute reading yours.  If recipients have to scroll down to read your message, they may just put it off to later, or worse, never read it entirely.  Remember the acronym BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front.  Make your point or ask your question in the first line of the email.
  4. Keep it concise.  Do you enjoy talking with someone that is longwinded?  Likewise, most people don’t enjoy longwinded writing styles.  This is a little different than the point above.  In this case I’m referring to sentence structure.  Short, clear sentences speed up reading.  Long run-on sentences slow down reading.  Use as few words as possible to convey your message.  Use bullet points instead of writing entire paragraphs.  Simple, common words are usually better than using words that will force someone to Google the definition.
  5. Spelling and grammar still count.  We all make mistakes.  Sometimes we let an email go without spell checking or proofreading it.  However, keep in mind that your communication is a reflection of you.  If you are working virtually, and the only way people identify you is through your electronic communications, then this is especially important.  If you are constantly sending out emails with spelling errors or making common errors, such as confusing “their” with “they’re,” then recipients may eventually form a negative perception of you.

Happy communicating,




The Things We Take for Granted When We Communicate

March 12, 2013


Recently, I was on a conference call with my IT department.  I was walking them through the business requirements of a recent change in policy.  That policy change would cause changes in the online tools employees were currently using.  The change was a bit complicated.  They didn’t understand the taxonomy the business used.  They didn’t understand all the steps in the process.  An hour later, I hung up the phone and wondered if they really understood what the business needed.  It was frustrating to see the least.

It reminded me of an old story I heard about a US business that was acquired by a British company.  The US leaders, anxious to keep their business, presented several initiatives and projects to their new boss.  The head British leader responded to each project review with the word, “Brilliant.”  The US leaders, not realizing that this was the equivalent of saying “interesting,” misinterpreted it as the go ahead to begin work.  A few months, and a few million dollars later, the US leaders were shocked when all work was   stopped and they were reprimanded for wasting company funds.  The point is, when we communicate in the virtual workplace, or just across functional departments or geographic lines for that matter, there are many things we take for granted. 

There are several things you can do to help improve communications within your virtual team, even if you’re technology is limited. 

Taxonomy.  Different groups or functions within an organization often use a different set of terms or language.  In my case, I was using terminology that came directly from the legal department and was very, very specific.  I kept finding myself correcting my counterparts because they didn’t understand the importance of the specific words being used.  In retrospect, it would have been helpful to spend a few minutes during the first meeting to walk everyone through the taxonomy used.  Perhaps a quick reference list provided to all team members would have helped too.

Visuals.  To use the old cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words, or at least a good 15 minutes on a conference call trying to explain yourself.  As much as I hate create a deck of PowerPoint slides just for the sake of creating slides, it’s often easier to walk people through a chart, process map, or provide some reference point.  People will hear and interpret things in different ways.  If 10 people are on a conference call, you may get 10 different versions of what the problem/goal is or what needs to be done.  Leave nothing to chance by spending the time to prepare and create some visual aids to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Leverage technology available.  Technology can greatly enhance communication.  Desktop sharing applications ensure everyone is looking at the same thing at the same time.  Video conferencing allows you to watch body language and judge whether people understand.  Shared spaces can ensure version control. Virtual whiteboards allow people to think out loud while engaging the rest of the group.  All of this can help.  Use it.

Follow up and document.  Always follow up and document the conversation, points made, actions to take, etc.  Again, leave nothing to chance in the communication process.

Good luck,



Ice Breakers for Virtual Teams

January 15, 2013

ice breaker

We’re all familiar with ice breakers – the quick facilitated exercises that are typically done when a team or group meets for the first time.  There are many different types of exercises a facilitator or team leader can use; some are related directly to the project at hand, others may be more personal, and some are a little zany.  The exercises are an easy, fun, and fast way to get people to know each other.  In theory, these team building exercises will help people build relationships quicker, begin to build trust, and ultimately accelerate team progress.

Ice breakers are very common when people meet face to face, but I have rarely seen it done for virtual teams.  According to one consulting group, 65% virtual teams claim they’ve never participated in a team building exercise.   Given the communication challenges of virtual teams, one might expect that leaders would attempt more team building exercises for virtual teams than teams that are co-located.  

Many of the commonly used ice breakers for face to face meetings can be used, with a little adaption, for virtual teams.  Here are a few examples:

The Question Game

  • How it’s usually played:  Participants write down a provoking question (or 2 or 3 questions) they would like to ask others in the group, i.e. “Where is the most interesting place you’ve ever traveled?” or “What would you be doing if money was no object?”  People are given time to mingle and ask others their questions.  When they get back together, each person can introduce one of the people they’ve met to the broader group.
  • Virtual team version:  It’s hard to mingle when you’re on a conference call or even online but there are a couple of different techniques to use in the virtual version of this game.  If your organization uses instant messaging, you can give participants a few minutes to contact others in the group over IM to ask their questions.  Alternatively, if your organization uses a desktop sharing application, give everyone a few minutes to type out a question, and then have each person share their screen with their questions.  Have every participant answer the question on the screen (Note: this works best with a small to mid-size group).

Map Game

  • How it’s usually played:  Hang a large map of the world and give everyone a pushpin.  As people enter the room they can pin the location of their birth to the map.
  • Virtual team version:  Easy to replicate with most desktop sharing apps.  Just show an image of a world map and have participants annotate their birth or current location.

The Artist Game

  • How it’s usually played:  Participants have 5 minutes to draw a picture with paper and pencil that best conveys who they are without writing any words or numbers.  The facilitator collects the pictures and then shows the pictures one at a time to the group.  Everyone has a minute to guess who drew it.  Each artist then has the chance to explain how the work conveys who they are.
  • Virtual team version:  Participants have a few minutes to go to the Web and find an image or screenshot that best conveys who they are and then emails it to the facilitator.  The facilitator can then flash each image on the screen one at a time and participants try to guess who it relates to.  Each person then has a chance to explain why they chose that image.  

Three in Common Game

  • How it’s usually played:   The group is split into smaller groups of 3 people each.  Each small group has to find 3 (or whatever number you chose) things they have in common.  The commonalities have to be something a little unusual and not things like age, sex, hair color, etc.  After 5 minutes, the larger group reconvenes and each small group briefs the rest of the participants.
  •  Virtual team version:  This can be played in a very similar way as the face to face version if you’re using collaboration software that allows you to do breakout sessions.  For example, Cisco WebEx allows the facilitator to select participants and create breakout sessions.  At the touch of a button, participants in a designated breakout group are switched from the main conference call to their own separate conference call line where they can complete the exercise.  When they are done, they simply click a button and join the main group again.

You can find additional ice breaker ideas online with a simple Google search and with a little additional thought, and with very little effort, you can adapt these games for your virtual team.  Give it a shot!

Good luck,


Learning Virtual Work from the Next Generation

November 13, 2012

Back before the summer I was lamenting about how I’ve given up on Generation Y for inspiration and looking at the generation beyond them (see Forget the Millennials.  Why I’m Betting on Generation Z).  I found it amazing that 50% of 11 year-olds have their own cell phones and 40% of 8 year-olds use the internet daily.  If having to explain to my kids the difference between VHF and UHF television channels didn’t make me feel old, then watching them carry around tablets certainly does. 

But, I’m over it.  I may be a dinosaur, but I’m a dinosaur that can still learn a few new tricks.  That’s why I’ve been observing how younger kids use technology for clues as to how us “older” folks can be better virtual workers.  For example, I mentioned in an earlier post that some employers are requiring job applicants to hand over their Facebook passwords or forcing employees to ‘friend’ their managers (see Your Boss Wants Your Facebook Password).  While speaking with a few local high school kids, a thought occurred to me.

“Are you friends with your parents on Facebook?” I asked.  I didn’t bother asking if they even had a Facebook account.  A few of them said they had at least one parent as a Facebook friend – mandated by their parents.

“How do you get around that?” I asked.  It took a few minutes of coaxing and promising that I wasn’t going to turn them in, but one mentioned how he and his friends use Twitter to vent, express themselves, meet up, find the next party, etc. while keeping a very innocuous Facebook page to keep their parents happy.  At this point, I started to see the future if more employers start intruding on their employees’ Facebook pages.  Employees will simply find other social media or communication tools for personal use while placating their employers with a more professional social media face.

Beyond social media, kids can teach us how to use technology better and differently.  My kids, who are elementary school age, are teaching me a little about virtual collaboration.  My children have become addicted to an online game called Minecraft, in which players can construct anything they want with different types of blocks.  Sort of like a virtual Lego world.  My daughter, using her Kindle Fire, will work with my son on my iPad to build out their own landscape and designs.  What’s interesting is that they sit right next to each other on the sofa, heads down in their screens, while shouting commands to each other.  It got me thinking about typical web conferencing tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc. are used.  We assume that these applications work when we are virtual, but limit their use when we are in person.  Watching my kids made me realize the value of collaborating virtually, even when we are face to face, and how the tool itself makes us more efficient when building out new ideas.

I challenge you to watch how your own kids use and how they interact with tools and technology.  You just might learn something.



Sometimes You Just Have to Meet Face to Face

July 17, 2012

It may seem odd that I am recommending meeting in person on a blog devoted to working virtually.  Yet,  some physical, face-to-face interaction is very beneficial, and sometimes necessary.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to the other side of the globe to spend a couple of weeks with team members I had only known by the sound of their voice.  Sure, the trip was a little expensive but it was more of an investment than a sunk cost and I expect it to payoff in the long run.  It can be almost impossible to get to know team members from other cultures through conference calls or email.  There’s nothing worse than hearing dead silence on a call for several seconds and then hear someone squeak “Okay, sure.”  You know that they have no idea what you are trying to communicate.

In many cases the physical interaction is more helpful as a social interaction than as a specific work related activity.  This social time will ultimately increase the comfort level people have with each other, create stronger cohesive bonds, and make future virtual interactions much smoother.  It can help cement the bond between virtual workers. When an email is sent to someone across the country or across the globe, the sender will see more than an email address. The sender will feel more connected to the person or team.   

I understand that leaders don’t always have the budget or resources to do this. I would also argue that frequent physical, face-to-face, interaction is not required.  In today’s tough economic times, it’s common to see organizations slash travel expenses and budgets.  Leaders should keep this in mind during the budget process and look for creative solutions to get their team together at the same time and same place at least once a year.  Search for opportunities arises such as a conference or annual meeting to plan a real, live, face-to-face meeting.  This will also provide face time which is still one of the most understated but most recognized variables in the promotion process.  Attaching a living, breathing face (not a web photo) with a voice and email address goes a long way into embedding an impression.