Remote Control

As the virtual workforce grows, so does the challenge for managers. Here's how to keep it together

When Lisa Wolff wanted to lure senior geological engineer Tom Selfridge to her geology consulting firm, the perk that clinched the deal wasn't a car, a health club, or stock options. What drew Selfridge, the father of two small children, to 14-employee Wolf Technologies Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., was more compelling: permission to work at home when his wife travels on business. Wolff, who recalled her own days with an intractable boss and a feverish child sleeping under her office desk, also offered the basic tools to get the job done: a laptop, a cell phone, and a pager. "Quite frankly," says Selfridge, "if I had asked for a laptop at my old firm, they would have laughed at me."

No one's laughing now. Wolff got a valued employee, and Selfridge recently got to work at home for an entire week while his wife was on the road.

Welcome to the world of the remote worker--here today, home tomorrow. Last year, 2.2 million, or 28.9%, of small companies with fewer than 100 employees offered telecommuting, up from 1.7 million, or 25.2%, in 1998, according to International Data Corp. (The research firm defines telecommuting as having at least one W-2 employee working at home at least three days a month.)

Not only do these employees crave flexibility, they often have the leverage in this tight labor market to insist on it. And employers may be hard- pressed to argue that they can't accommodate them. Here, as elsewhere, technology has reshaped the landscape, making it easier for virtual workers to function as if they were in the next cubicle. E-mail alone may be enough for your employee to stay in touch. Better yet, emerging Web-based tools help virtual teams work more efficiently through such services as real-time chat or sites that let you share files and post schedules.

Access to a company's local area network really bridges the distance between home and office. About 29% of small companies with fewer than 100 employees already give their employees remote access to their local-area networks, according to another 1999 IDC survey, and the larger the business, the more likely they are to offer such access (chart).

The cost of setting up remote access varies widely, of course, depending on what you already have in place. Companies running Windows NT and a high-speed, always-on connection, such as a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), can simply configure the server for remote access. (Figure on paying a consultant for a couple of hours' work.) Starting from scratch, you'll pay anywhere from $1,500 to $30,000 for network server alone. If your employees come in over the Web, you'll want a high-speed connection ($40 and up monthly, plus installation) but a dial-up connection will require a pool of modems (figure $50 per modem and another $50 per phone line). Count on hiring a consultant, too.

Sure, handling these new arrangements challenges managers. You need to make sure your employees tend to their work, not just their vegetable gardens. It can also be tough to keep staff motivated and working cohesively without much personal contact.

Morale Booster. Still, it's often worth the effort. Ceridian Corp., a human resources systems vendor, says in a survey released last year that 52% of companies, both big and small, reported that telecommuting programs helped attract talent; 60% said they enhanced worker loyalty. After all, allowing telecommuting shows employees you trust them. "That goes a long way toward improving morale," says Jack Nilles, president of JALA International in Los Angeles, a consultant on telecommuting. And, he says, it helps productivity, too. These "teleworkers" typically take two to three fewer sick days per year than office-based workers.

Policies for managing remote workers tend to be informal at small companies--often concocted on the spot, says IDC Vice-President Ray Boggs. Frequently, they spring from the owners' personal desire for flexibility, as in the case of Mike and Maureen Birdsall, co-owners of Birdsall Designs Inc., a 14-employee Web design firm in San Francisco. Mike often cuts out at 4 p.m. to retrieve the couple's kids from day care and then resumes work in the evenings. The Birdsalls expect no less from their employees. They foot the bill for home Internet connections, encouraging them to work at home evenings and weekends to meet deadlines.

"Still Learning." For successful remote management, set down some guidelines and lay out your expectations clearly, says Gil Gordon, a consultant on virtual management issues, based in Monmouth Junction, N.J. Jay Wilkinson, owner of a 50-employee AlphaGraphics Inc. franchise in Lincoln, Neb., shows how convenience can cut both ways: He requires that his telecommuters be on call with a company-supplied cell phone.

Also seeking swift communication, Keith Lindbeck, CEO of direct marketer Beginning 2 End Inc. in San Francisco, instituted a policy that home-based workers answer their office calls in two rings or less, after some telecommuters let their phones ring excessively. But Lindbeck hasn't solved the social challenges. Two office-based employees who quit recently complained in exit interviews that the office was too lonely because of all the telecommuters and business travelers. "I'm still learning how to manage it," concedes Lindbeck.

The virtual workers are even more likely to feel isolated. That's why Wilkinson lets his regular meetings meander a bit. He wants the remote employees to catch up on office and client gossip. "It helps keep them connected to the company culture," he says. To keep your workplace cohesive, Gordon suggests limiting employees to two or three work-at-home days per week. If a full-time, long-distance relationship is absolutely necessary, try limiting it to just a few employees to reduce scheduling and training headaches. Also, fly them in every three or four months to meet new staff.

To decide if a job can easily be done at home, evaluate it by three key criteria: how portable the work is, whether it has a measurable start and end, and whether it requires a lot of in-person interaction. (That rules out most managers.)

Once you've approved a remote work arrangement, don't forget about office-bound employees. IDC's Ray Boggs says you can minimize jealousy by making sure telecommuters have allies back in the office. Also, explain the trade-offs those workers make clearly to the other employees. Kim Clayton, chief operating officer of Select Benefit Administrators, explained to other workers that he had scaled back the scope, pay, and hours of two health insurance claims processors, young mothers who wanted to work from home as part-timers.

"We don't have resentment," AlphaGraphic's Wilkinson says of his telecommuters, "because they're well-liked and have a lot of respect among their co-workers." Even virtual workers need people skills, it seems.

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