Computers, e-mail, high-speed Internet access, secure networks and a host of other technologies have changed the way we work, and now even more, they're changing the way we commute or whether we even commute at all. Across the country and around the world, more companies, small businesses included, are catching on to the economic advantages of having a remote workforce.
Leslie Jorgensen, president of Supporting Strategies, knows about this first hand. Her Beverly, Mass.-based company provides a complete range of financial management services to small businesses and startups that don't require a full-time staff. All six of Joregsen's employees work out of home offices.
"I wanted to leverage technology to create a remote workforce of moms looking for a part-time commitment, and then match them with my customers," says Jorgensen. "I needed an IT infrastructure to link my clients with my workers, but everyone kept telling me it would be too expensive for a small business to have that kind of solution."
Ultimately, Jorgensen found Hiwired, Inc, a Needham, Mass.-based remote technology service provider. Together, they came up with a solution that serves Jorgensen's needs. "We're using Microsoft's Terminal Services, which is part of Small Business Server 2003. My employees and clients can access the terminal server from their own PCs, and it's as though they're working on a regular computer desktop," she says.
Hiwired hosts the solution, which lets Supporting Strategies share documents and securely store all client files (clients send in hard copies that are scanned and saved as pdf files). Jorgensen says that it also offers her clients "four or five levels of redundancy, so if their own office goes up in flames, they have an off-site copy of their data."
Of course, working at home isn't all comfy sweatpants and fuzzy slippers. It takes forethought and planning to make it happen. Singu Srinivas, president of Hiwired, Inc., whose own workforce primarily consists of remote workers, has advice for anyone thinking about adding remote workers to the company head count.
First, Srinivas says, think about the actual space your employees will occupy and how it relates to their role. "Will they be interacting with clients or working independently? If employees will be talking on the phone a lot with clients, you may want them in a space that's private from the rest of the house where barking dogs and crying babies won't be a problem."
Jorgensen concurs. "It's important to have a place where you can close the door. It's also important to maintain a good work/life balance. Sometimes that line blurs and you find yourself checking e-mail at 10 p.m.," she says. "That can lead to unhappy and less productive employees, so we share tricks about organizing the day so work doesn't filter into home life."
Next, Srinivas suggests you consider the kind of technology your employees will need, from desktops or laptops, printers, access to servers and even the type of Internet access. Most importantly, he says. Think about standardizing the technology.
"Depending on your company's needs, create a policy regarding the type, brand and minimum configurations for all of the equipment you need to buy," he says. "Doing this will make supporting your IT much easier and it can save you a lot of money."
Jorgensen learned about standardizing technology the hard way. "When we first started out, we didn't have standardized equipment, and it was a real problem. We had some people with old PCs that were infected with viruses; they hadn't been updated at all. Remote workers save you oodles of money on office space, but you can't be cheap on IT. Buy your employees new laptops. The old stuff is expensive and frustrating to support. Budget for your IT, and don't scrimp."
Srinivas also says to make sure your remote employees have access to a help desk. "They can't do their job if they're trying to get rid of a virus. A help desk can keep your workers up and running."
Finally, consider your company's policies and benefits structure. "Think through what you can and can't provide for your employees and create a policy," says Srinivas. "Will you reimburse for car mileage, broadband access or cell phones? If you have employees in more than one state, and you offer medical insurance, be sure to find a broker who can source insurance in multiple states."
Jorgensen recommends talking to your employees to find out what it is that they value most. "Supporting Strategies is not the main source of income for my employees," she says. "For them, the most important issues are flexible scheduling and a fair hourly pay rate. They want to work 20-30 hours a week, bring in extra income for the family and still be involved with their children's lives."
Remote Pros and Cons
Both Srinivas and Jorgensen acknowledge there are advantages and disadvantages in having a remote workforce. "Having employees that work from home reduces our overhead and we see a much lower turnover rate," says Srinivas. "The downside is that there can be a sense of not belonging or alienation."
To combat this, Hiwired's employees spend 80 percent of their time working at home and the other 20 percent at a small office in Needham building community and taking part in company training.
Jorgensen says the main challenge for her remote employees is communication. "If you all work in one office, you just walk down the hall to ask a someone question. We replicate that atmosphere by using instant messenging and GotoMeeting.com, which lets us collaborate and share screens."
Ultimately, Jorgensen says her business wouldn't exist if it weren't for remote access technology. "I'm able to offer opportunities to working moms and to small businesses that don't have much of a budget. The technology makes it all happen."
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com
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