5 Tips for Managing Remote Workers Successfully

Thursday Jan 26th 2012 by Carla Schroder
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Remote workers and telecommuting can help small business save money and boost morale, and we've got five tips to help you set up a structure that benefits employees and management.

What could be better than working from home? For a lot of workers it sounds like heaven. But bosses don't always see it the same way, and they worry about things like tech support or what remote employees are really doing. Telecommuting can help you cut costs, and it's a great perk to offer your workers. Here are five tips to minimize management headaches.

So Who Needs an Office?

It's hard to beat face-time for maintaining communications and good relationships, so one approach that works well for a lot of shops is a mix of on- and offsite: some days your telecommuters come to work in the office, and some days they stay home.

You'll have to re-think how to allocate office space for workers that don't need to come into an office every day, because it doesn't make sense to maintain full-time space for part-time inhabitants. But they'll still need their own dedicated space somewhere, so don't repeat the infamous Chiat/Day experiment from back in the 1990s.

In 1993 Jay Chiat, legendary ad man and founder of the agency that created Apple's 1984 commercial and the Energizer bunny, decided that Chiat-Day was going to boldly march into the new millennium as a completely mobile, boundary-free office.

The company equipped all the employees with cell phones and Mac books, and they took away the desks and offices. They emancipated employees from their little cubicle prisons and set them free. All the walls came down, and instead of offices and cubicles they had shared public areas. The rest of the time they could work at home, at the beach, at the coffee shop -- anywhere and anytime they wanted, wherever the creative/productive vibes came together and created magic.

Brick Wall

Figure 1: Who wants to look at this all day? (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

There was a wee flaw in this beautiful scheme: it didn't work. Employees had to check out their phones and Mac books at the start of each work day, and then check them back in at the end of the day. They were still tethered to the office, they never got the same devices, and they couldn't build address books, their own document archives, or customize applications to their liking.

Without walls the noise level was high. The only storage was a rack of lockers, high-school style. Nobody knew where to sit or where to store their stuff. (Read the whole Wired magazine story, Lost in Space . It's a testament to the power of a boss with a bad idea.)

The lesson in this tale is infrastructure and workflow. We all need a place for our stuff, and we need our stuff arranged to support an efficient workflow. It's extremely inefficient to start over every day like the Chiat-Day folks.

Suppose you have a remote worker who works in the office one or two days per week -- this person might share an office or cubicle with someone who comes in the other days. Someone who comes to the office a couple of days every month will still need some storage space, and a place to sit down and work. Some shops handle this with a "bullpen," which is space dedicated to temporary and roaming workers.

Let Workers Choose Their Own Tools

Some of your people won't care and will use whatever old junk you give them. Some do care. If they have a preference, give them what they want, within reason of course. Me, I would love my own mainframe to play with, but I'm not sure how I could justify it to a boss.

Still, tools are personal and make a big difference in efficiency. For example I prefer Lenovo Thinkpads. Thinkpads are rugged, reliable, and comfortable to type on. I type all day every day, so that matters a lot. I also prefer the Trackpoint to a touchpad. Touchpads are nasty things that feel wrong and slow me down. Same story with smartphones: each one is different, so you want your people to have whatever helps them do their work and gets in their way the least.

Hardware is cheap and labor is expensive, so don't penny-pinch on tools. Especially phone service -- Voice over IP (VoIP) is popular because it's so cheap. Most of the time, however, you get crappy call quality. It's not worth saving a few dollars just so your people can holler "What? What did you say? Oh forget it, I'll send you an email," to each other.

Monitoring Employee Performance

Keeping an eye on remote workers isn't all that different from managing them in person -- either they get the work done, or they don't. Some people simply don't have the self-discipline to work at home. Sometimes it requires more firmness than they are capable of -- telling the friends, neighbors and family that they are home to work, and that means not talking or running errands or baking cookies or watching movies with the kids.

A field of flowers

Figure 2: Pleasant surroundings are better for morale and productivity. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

An important corollary to this is keeping an eye on unpaid overtime. Several studies show that a lot of remote workers put in more hours because they're always connected, and it's too easy to keep working while sitting in front of the tube with the family, or to keep checking in long after the workday has ended.

This is not a boon for the employer, but a big fat liability. People get sloppy, they get burned out, and it creates a false impression of how much work the job actually entails. Volkswagen manages this by turning their email servers off after hours and during holidays.

Tech Supportfor Remote Workers

You'll need IT staff that knows how to support remote workers. There are a lot of tools to help IT staff, the best ones being remote helpdesk software. This lets your admins log into an employee's computer and controls it remotely, which is a heck of a lot faster than trying to talk them through a telephone diagnosis and repair.

Another possibility is using Web applications instead of standalone applications installed on your employee's computers. Then your remote people can work from any computer anywhere, and a computer failure doesn't stop them from working.

I'm not a fan of Web applications because they are slow and annoying, and if anything interrupts the network connection they're inaccessible. Most shops use a mix of Web and standalone applications.

My favorite way to be prepared for failures is to keep some spare laptops on standby. These don't have to be expensive new machines, but serviceable older ones. Then your remote worker with a sick computer can come in to snag a spare, or you can ship one out overnight. Hardware is cheaper than downtime.

Keep a stash of helpful documents on the company intranet, and make sure remote workers have their own copies. A sizable percentage of help desk requests consist of employees asking where to find things and how to do certain tasks. You might also have a little training in managing logins, because no matter how hard we try, we always end up with multiple logins to track, and a little formal coaching will save hours of help desk time.

Water Cooler Cam

Finally, you might think about putting a Webcam with audio on the water cooler, or somewhere in a break room to help remote workers stay connected and to counter "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome. A nice Webcam advantage is the remote worker can turn it off when they don't want to be interrupted.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook, and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

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