Make telecommuting work for your business


By Monte Enbysk

Telecommuting has gotten a bad rap. Some say that employees can't be serious about their careers if they'd rather work from home. Others insist that work groups fall apart if team members aren't physically in the office.

But the bad rap may not hold: A recent WorldatWork Telework Trendlines report found that almost 29 million Americans now work remotely at least one day per month, a number that continues to grow.

While telecommuting, also called teleworking, is not for everyone, there is no question in my mind that in today's Internet Age, most workers expect to be able to do it at least part of each week or month. So, as a small-business owner who seeks to recruit and retain good employees, you'd do well to be flexible enough to allow telecommuting whenever possible.

Even if you prefer your staffers not do it full-time, it should be an option for circumstances such as these:

• An employee with a minor illness, such as a cold, would be better off working at home.

• A deadline is pressing and the employee can be more productive working at home.

• Weather, traffic conditions, or personal appointments make it smart for an employee to work at home for a day or more.

• An employee with a disability is better served by being able to work from home.

You'll find advocacy groups such as the International Telework Association & Council (http://www.workingfromanywhere.org/ ) pointing out these benefits: reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, better work/life balance, potential savings in real-estate costs, and reduced costs for recruiting and retaining workers. I would argue that the last benefit is the most critical—workers today want this option and the empowerment that goes with it.

And you want to attract and keep good workers, no doubt. So here are seven tips for developing a telecommuting program for your business.

1. Establish guidelines for when (and how long) telecommuting is acceptable.

These guidelines should be based on your business, your comfort level, and your employees' needs, yet must be general enough to withstand changes in your workforce. For example, you may decide that an employee can work from home to stay with an ill child or spouse, but you may not want an employee to work from home to take care of young children. (Advocacy groups such as ITAC discourage allowing long-term babysitting as a reason to telecommute. They recommend that an employee with a temporary daycare problem work a different shift that day, or request time off.) Similarly, you'll need to decide how many employees can telecommute at one time, and whether it is feasible to have full-time telecommuters. Also, you'll need to oversee or assign a manager for your telecommuting program, to maintain integrity and accountability.

2. Have ways of making sure expectations are met.

If you allow your employees to telecommute several days a week, you'll need to assign tasks and chart how progress can be measured and evaluated on a daily basis. You'll also want to use e-mail or scheduled phone conversations, to ensure not only that the task or project is completed but also that the work is meeting expectations.

3. Trust your workers by focusing on the results, not the process.

You can't have an employee telecommute, and then spend each hour worrying about whether he is actually working. "Within limits," says Gil Gordon, a New Jersey-based author of two books and a newsletter on telecommuting. "It's much more important that the telecommuter got that budget revision to you at 8 a.m. Wednesday, than it is to worry about whether he or she was watching TV at 3 p.m. on Tuesday."

4. Don't cut corners on technology.

You can't have workers telecommuting with substandard computer equipment that will limit their output and effectiveness. Even if your budget is tight (and whose isn't?), you need to take some responsibility for the PC workstation and other equipment they need at home, such as assisting with the purchase of a modem or printer.

5. Don't cut corners on ergonomics.

After some past controversy, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration clarified its standards, saying it won't inspect home offices and won't hold employers liable for telecommuters' home offices. However, employers are required to keep records of telecommuter injuries suffered at home, and could be found liable in employee damage claims. Gordon recommends a proactive approach. Employers should be aware of the conditions of their employees' home offices, having telecommuters bring in photos, if possible. If the employee's job involves "high-volume keyboarding," Gordon adds that the employer should consider providing an ergonomically correct chair as well as a workstation—since you would provide those items at your workplace.

6. Provide access to a company intranet or extranet.

An intranet is an internal company Web site; an extranet is an extension of the internal site to selected outsiders such as partners and vendors. Your telecommuters need access to internal documents and their own company e-mail to do their jobs. Also, if the telecommuter is involved in a team project, make sure there are project checklists and other resources available so he or she contribute and stay connected like other team members. The collaboration features in Microsoft's SharePoint may provide the solutions you need.

7. Make the most of face-to-face contact.

Even if you allow employees to telecommute as often as they wish, you need to have periodic "face" time with them. Many veteran telecommuters today choose to work at least one day a week in the office. Key meetings and company events should be scheduled to allow them to be there in person. (The teleconferencing capabilities of Microsoft Office Live Meeting make it easy for telecommuters to participate, even when they can show up in person.) Yet telecommuters must also be flexible enough to leave home when necessary for unscheduled meetings.

It's a delicate balance: The telecommuter needs to feel that he or she is not missing out on what's going on at the office. And those at the office need to feel that the telecommuter is "pulling his weight."

 
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