This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of SupportWorld magazine.
There was a time when working outside the office was only an option for the “road warrior”; those who frequently traveled as part of their position (sales, area managers, etc.). Historically, these employees would either replicate their data from the home office when they could connect via modem, cellular, or Wi-Fi connection or access the network using VPN technology.
More recently, due to reduced costs in VPN tools, wireless and VOIP communications, and online collaboration software, the ability to successfully work outside of the office has become an easier goal to attain. These road warriors can now readily access the network and use all available tools with little to no lag. This led to an evolution in thought process in regards to these tools, and made sense for companies to look to these tools for other uses. In many cases it became an option for emergency preparedness, disaster recovery, or bad weather alternatives.
With the advent of high-speed residential Internet, it has become easier and more cost effective than ever for businesses to implement permanent and part-time remote work arrangements. The ability to ensure collaboration and oversight has always been a concern. Cutting edge companies have been quick to mitigate these concerns using technology, creative thinking, and management education. As the technology continues to improve, those barriers are being removed, thus allowing full-time remote work to become an option for more employees among several disciplines including those in IT support and services.
It has become easier and more cost effective than ever for businesses to implement permanent and part-time remote work arrangements.
As companies are realizing and implementing remote work arrangements, they are seeing the productivity and overhead cost savings benefits. While participating companies quote these benefits as a bottom line reason for implementing said program, more firms are seeing additional benefits from full-time remote work programs. Forrester Research’s U.S. Telecommuting Forecast notes that 43 percent of the U.S. workforce will be a full time remote by 2016. Those companies not participating are being left behind and will be out of touch with the new reality within the next 10 years.
Along with productivity benefits and reduced real estate costs, offering a full time remote work benefit is also a great recruiting and retention tool. Many candidates and employees, especially those falling in the Millennial and Gen X categories, now expect their company to give them greater flexibility in their job. Companies are also under increased demand to find additional benefits they can provide employees beyond increased pay. With this being the case, management and companies of all sizes are under increased pressure to implement a partial or full-time remote work strategy.
With the benefits, however, employers will encounter some challenges associated with a permanent remote work strategy. For some managers, effectively leading staff members who are not in sight or centrally located can be difficult. These managers tend to feel that they need to be able to see the employee and engage them directly. Also, employees can feel disconnected from their peers, the department, and even the company. They miss out on the face to face interaction that either occurs or they perceive occurs on a daily basis. Both situations can create a disconnect between the manager and the employee, as well as the employee and department goals. These issues occur due to changes in communication, technical, and geographical dynamics employees and management are used to. It is up to leadership to lead the change in these dynamics or be left with a program that will most likely fail.
The following are some tips and changes that can assist in improving these dynamics and help ensure a positive remote work arrangement:
Daily Communication Is a Must
- It is the responsibility of the manager to make sure they reach out and engage their employees. In the office, you can simply walk around and see your employees — remote employees must be actively engaged, otherwise they will feel forgotten. Managers must make a point to call or instant message their employees. Management must consider communicating to all employees in the same manner so as to ensure that everyone is treated equally.
- Management and employees cannot just rely upon email. A culture of openness must be created. Employees should feel empowered to contact their upline management when needed or wanted. Managers should enforce the idea that they are available and make sure their remote employees have alternate methods of contacting them.
- Communication is a two way street. Employees should ensure they are updating their upline with status updates, questions, or issues. Employees should not think they have to wait for a one on one to do so. In addition, employees must realize that they may have to communicate more frequently, especially early on, to ensure everyone is aware what they are doing.
- Companies should look at their communication plans and make sure they meet the needs of the remote employees. Consideration should be given to training management and employees on these new paradigms prior to implementing the telecommuting program.
- Depending upon the company setup, employees will access their network in a variety of ways. Management will need to make sure that the employees have all of the accesses and connectivity technology required to do their job. This may require an investment in a VOIP phone, VPN software/hardware, or other remote access technology. Don’t be afraid of granting VPN or virtual desktop access. Be creative in the approach, but the wheel does not have to be reinvented. Look at methods other companies have implemented and securely incorporate them.
- Employees will need to understand what technology or resources they are responsible for and make sure they have addressed them. This may mean the implementation of a required work area, a personal computer update, upgrade of Internet speeds, or even specific telephony services or equipment to name a few.
- The company should work with human resources to ensure that any specific state laws are met. This could mean, for example, specific lighting is required and may have to be provided by the company or at the costs of the employee.
- Depending upon the role of the employee, certain security requirements may need to be implemented. This could be something as simple as the need for a key fob to access specific data or a physical shredder to securely destroy documents or CD’s/DVD’s.
Engagement, Recognition & Promotion
- Depending upon the remote work structure, employees should feel free to engage their peers in and outside of work. When working in-house, many employees will eat lunch together or socialize after work. Remote work should not prevent that. Depending upon geographical setup, employees and managers should feel enabled to meet for an off-site one-on-one over lunch. Employees should feel free to come into the office to attend important meetings and events.
- Just because an employee is working remotely does not mean they are not interested in other opportunities. Depending upon the employee and their career goals, they may be interested in opportunities within and outside of their department. Do not assume that a remote employee will not be willing to come back into the office for a new opportunity that does not allow for a remote work strategy. Management should ensure they are assisting the employee with their career goals and communicate limitations that remote work may create to obtaining these goals.
- Managers should ensure that they recognize their remote employees no differently than their in-house employees. As an employee achieves a recognizable accomplishment, management should ensure that all employees are engaged as part of the recognition. Remote employees should be sure to recognize the accomplishments of their peers too.
- Management must ensure that a contingency plan is in place for their employees should technical issues arise. Employees may encounter connectivity or general location issues that may prevent them from productively working. Management should have a policy and possibly a contingent work area for these situations.
- Whether it is a minor or major outage, situations will arise where company resources prevent a remote employee from working. Ensure that a communication plan is in place to contact the remote employees and a documented process is in place. Consideration should be given to alternate access methods. Employees should engage management if a situation like this arises, rather than wait to be contacted.
- Due to performance or other issues, an employee may need to come back into the office permanently. Management should have a process in place for this. Employees should understand their rights, as well, and ensure they understand the company’s remote work policy.
- While we hate to think about it, termination or resignation of a remote employee is a possibility. Management should have a policy and a plan to deal with this.
Full time remote work is becoming common, and as stated by Forrester Research, it will become more prevalent in the near future. The flexibility of these arrangements is a benefit and savings to both the employer and employees. With that said, it will take coordination, change, and input from everyone to ensure success. To be successful, leadership cannot assume that what is working in the office will work for a remote work. Input from all parties, acceptance of change, and a strong management team can help pilot and sustain a successful program.
Joe Arechederra has over 17 years of experience in customer service and IT Service Desk leadership. He currently manages a team that supports the entire support life cycle (onboarding, international outsourcing as well as internal leadership development and succession planning) and is the sitting President of the HDI Gateway (St. Louis) Chapter. Joe holds a degree in communications from Truman State University and lives in St. Louis with his wife and two children.