Working remotely has become commonplace for businesses of all sizes. According to a recent IDC report, the United States has the highest percentage of mobile workers in its workforce, 119.7 million workers or three-quarters of the workforce expected to be mobile by 2013. Currently, nearly 85 percent of employees work remotely one day a week or more.
Technology has made telecommuting a viable and attractive alternative. Advanced laptops, smartphones, wi-fi, high-speed internet and cloud computing applications enable operations from anywhere at any hour. For small businesses with limited resources, remote arrangements can be particularly attractive. First and foremost, telecommuting could substantially reduce rent, utility and other overhead expenses. Moreover, eliminating aggravating commutes and providing employees with greater flexibility to manage childcare and other commitments enhances work-life balance and improves morale – both critical factors in attracting and keeping talent.
However, while businesses are increasingly embracing this trend, without the right policies and guidelines in place, out-of-office can become out-of-business. In fact, a Microsoft survey of small and medium-sized businesses found that nearly half don’t have official policies to govern the nuances of telecommuting.
When deciding to transition some, or all, of your workers to remote schedules, there are a number of considerations you should keep in mind:
Who is right for the (remote) job – Remote work isn’t necessary the right fit for every employee. When hiring or transitioning workers to remote schedules, jobs skills relevant to the role are only one part of the equation. Being comfortable and effective outside of a conventional workplace and away from a manager and colleagues generally requires someone who is team-oriented, a self-starter and a strong communicator.
Better safe than sorry – Guidelines for using and securing company technology should be updated to reflect the realities of remote work including specifics steps for ensuring that company equipment is protected from damage and loss and that confidential information is not compromised. For example, the policy should include specific standards for encryption, firewalls, virus protection, remote wipes in case of loss/theft, etc. Depending on the nature of your operation, you may want to consider retaining an IT professional to assess whether company data or customer information will be adequately protected on external servers or employees’ personal computers. Out of sight, but not out of mind – A prevailing concern regarding remote arrangements is that without regular supervision and oversight, workers might slack off or be less efficient. However, the key to maintaining performance and productivity high in or out of the office is setting specific expectations and keeping the lines of communication open. You should maintain the same schedule of routine meetings and check-ins as you would with in-office teams and enforce office policies and deadlines. Lead by example by remaining engaged and accessible via phone or email. Finally, there are a number of affordable web-based software programs — Basecamp, Zoho Projects, Liquid Planner, 5pm, and others — that can help add more structure and clarity by enabling you to assign tasks and deadlines and receive updates when milestones are completed.
Staying close-knit while working apart – Clearly, there are cultural advantages to having staff under one roof. Opportunities for in-person collaboration, impromptu brainstorms and social outings build a bond between employees and a connection to the company. However, it is possible to preserve a sense of culture even if the majority of your workforce is remote all or part of the time. Scheduling group events/meetings at regular intervals is one easy idea. Another is using interactive technology like Skype and other video/audio conferencing systems. Unlike traditional conference calls, these tools put remote workers “face to face.” Many also have simultaneous chat features that make it easier for every person on the line to be an active participant in the conversation.