I personally have a problem with working virtually at home. Every time the elevator comes to the seventh floor, my dog barks. My refrigerator beckons me. Short conversations with my mom, sister, and best friend all seem like a good idea. Personally, I’m basically a pajama queen who desperately seeks the energy, creative and strategic thinking that an office environment provides. I guess that’s the reason why when someone in my office asks to work virtually at home one or two days a week, I cringe, but I also have to be realistic. Recruiting is a sales position, and technically if you’re a superstar, you could work out of the nearest phone booth. However, unless you really are Superman or Superwoman, I believe that people work better in the office.

Putting my personal beliefs aside, though, virtual companies and virtual jobs are becoming more popular than ever before. In the last 10 years, telecommuting grew by 80 percent, and that doesn’t even count the people who are self-employed and work out of a home office. Today, many virtual workers are employed by traditional, office-based companies.

These forward-looking virtual companies embrace a new way of working in a revolutionary way. They don’t see virtual working as a benefit, but as a requirement. In many areas of the country, firms are experiencing a talent crunch and they are having a tough time finding programmers, specialty marketers, and sales people. On the flip side, experts living in small towns are having a hard time finding suitable positions. Problem solved — virtual employment.

For years, large companies have been giving workers telecommute options, especially when you employ worldwide teams. Some research has shown virtual teams can even outperform on-site teams when the right processes are in place. So why are so many companies, especially smaller companies, so resistant to the virtual office?

What’s a “virtual team”?

Most of us think of team members working out of their homes or small satellite offices as the “virtual” office. Successful virtual companies are great at collaboration, and they know how to leverage technology to their advantage. Is there anyone working today who doesn’t use email and telecom? I doubt you’re in business if you answer “yes.”

Here are some of the benefits to working virtually:

Less overhead
Growing companies don’t need to upgrade office space, and home office costs are not staggering.

Raise the employee bar
Hire for the skills no matter where the person(s) lives. If you are no longer tied to a location, fish where the fish are living. Also, more experienced people with families who live outside of city centers are now in your proverbial pond.

Better-quality communication
While poor communication is often mentioned as a reason not to have employee remote teams, I think leaders and employees tend to be more thoughtful and prepared for meetings on Skype and video conferences. I also think that virtual teams are more self-reliant and tend to find the answers before picking up the phone and/or sending an email.

Diverse thinking
I have also found when speaking with my clients who are virtual companies that they tend to have teams with different points of view and different cultural affects that often bring a realistic approach to the marketplace.

Flex time
Since virtual employees do not commute, they often are at their desks earlier and later than their office peers. On the other hand, they also have time for school pick-ups and doctor’s appointments, and they’re usually home for dinner (many tend to go back to their home work space afterwards).

Quality of life
Being able to live and work where you want to has enormous benefits on your emotional and physical well-being, which often leads to better work performance.

Here are some of the drawbacks to working virtually:

There is nothing like in the flesh
Body language, touch, smell, and delicate changes in a person’s voice all but virtually (pun intended) disappear. To me, all email sounds the same, and I can’t see how a person is reacting on the phone. Even Skype and video have their limitations. It’s like going to a movie versus being in the movie.

Is-it-getting-done syndrome
You lose the benefit of seeing someone in the office every day, being able to stop by their desk and ask them what they’re working on. Instead, you have to develop other techniques to track and coordinate work.

Creating an employee culture
Since you have fewer touch points, you won’t have as close of a working relationship. It’s also harder to build a sense of fellowship when you all can’t go out after work for a drink, though this can be alleviated if you have regular in-person meetings at headquarters.

Requires new skills and behaviors
If you’ve never worked on a virtual team or run one, you need to learn new management skills and behaviors. Your team also has to go through an adjustment. You’ll have to set up guidelines for communications, accountabilities, and deadlines.

When running virtual teams, best practices I’m aware of include:

Use an instant messenger
Use an instant message program to create a sense of “now” amongst members of the team. Use chat to have side conversations to gain consensus, confirm understanding, or ask questions. Ask quick questions through instant messenger as a substitute for popping into someone’s cubicle.

Use Skype and video conferencing
I’ve used our internal video conferencing technology when training new team members who are in other offices. We basically keep our sound and cameras on all day so the new person can listen and learn from more experienced team members.

Increase frequency of verbal check-ins
I tend to reach out more to people to see how they are doing and if they understand our process.

Use online services
Use an online system. We use a technology called iAreaNet, an inexpensive service for sharing files, bug tracking, project management, source control, virtual phones, web conferencing, conference calls, screen recording, usability testing, and so on.

Meet in-person occasionally
In-person meetings help build team interconnections and trust. People get to know each other on a deeper level. Bringing everyone together on a regular basis helps create your internal employee brand and will increase the efficiency of your team.

Virtual is not for everyone

Like me, the pajama queen, virtual working is not for everyone and doesn’t work for all companies and cultures. I don’t view the virtual working environment as a standard practice, but more of a necessary productive choice. Today’s technology has given us the option of non-traditional office environments. You need to weigh the benefits versus the pitfalls of the virtual office or employee. If it works for you, great, and for the rest of us, I’ll see you tomorrow at 9:00 a.m.