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The virtual workforce is here to stay
By Douglas Gantenbein (From Microsoft Website)

While some technical and cultural hurdles remain, evidence points to growing popularity of and support for remote workers worldwide. Advances in technology continue to help remote workers be as, or more, productive than those in the home office.

New employees don't want to move to take a new job

In the past decade, virtual work has changed a great deal. New tools give people the ability to work wherever they are, whether they're in a home office, a commuter train, or a hotel room. Companies that need more knowledge workers have realized that sometimes a new employee would rather simply stay in their hometown than move. As a result, working off-site continues to grow in popularity. The consulting firm Work Design Collaborative estimates that about 14 percent of the U.S. workforce works from home two days or more each week. That's up from 11 percent in 2004, and estimated to be 17 percent by 2009. The U.S. leads the way in telecommuting worldwide, but other nations are catching up, according to Gartner Research: By 2009, Europe should have about 10 percent of its workforce working at least part time from a remote location. Japan, too, should see growth, in part because of its technology-intensive infrastructure and in part because of government initiatives aimed at boosting telecommuting and virtual work.

To understand the changes, it pays to recall how a virtual employee working in the year 2000 might have functioned. The primary tools were fax, e-mail—often over slow dial-up connections—and wireless telephones that had no data features. But back then, the impetus for working remotely was more about saving money than ensuring employees were highly productive. And while economy still drives some remote work, the power of the tools available today helps remote workers work just as efficiently as any other employee. Personal digital assistants and smartphones equipped with Windows Mobile give people capabilities they could only dream of just seven years ago. Says Harprit Singh, founder and chief executive of Intellicomm, a company that creates unified messaging systems: "Not long ago it was hard to envision a device with the form factor of a mobile phone that had the power of a laptop. But that's really what we have today."

More needs to be done

Have we reached remote-work perfection? Not really. The complexity of some remote work tools, such as videoconferencing, remains a hindrance for virtual workers. Mobile security is still a big worry for many information technology (IT) managers. And while managers have become more comfortable with remote employees, it's true that physical presence is still important in the business world.

The next phase of telecommuting and virtual work will see more intuitive tools such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting. But experts say that managers and workers both need to contend with the stress that an increasingly global marketplace creates. Telecommuters and remote workers often confront deadlines and meetings in time zones half a world away, making it difficult to get away from work.

Still, it's clear that if a virtual workforce can survive, it can thrive—thanks not only to an ever-increasing array of mobile devices and software tools, but also to the growing acceptance that being at work doesn't have to mean being "at work." Read our companion articles on how to be a better virtual manager, and how security improvements in Windows Vista aid virtual workers—and IT managers supporting them.

Douglas Gantenbein writes often on technology for Microsoft. A journalist for more than 20 years, his work has appeared in Business 2.0, Scientific American, Popular Science, and other magazines.

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