From the December 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Besides giving them hefty raises, perhaps the best thing you can do to keep employees productive and happy is to let some of them work from home. I should know--I recently began telecommuting myself. Today's workers demand more flexibility in their jobs, and telecommuting provides just that, thus allowing them to spend more time with their families. It also improves their productivity by helping them avoid a hectic--and often distracting--work environment.

Telecommuting doesn't pay off just for employees, however: Companies with telecommuting programs typically experience a reduction in lost time and the costs involved with commuting, sick leave and employee turnover.

Instituting a telecommuting program slashes office space and furniture costs, too. When expensive office space became a real concern for ConnexT Corp., a fast-growing Seattle-based company that provides software and services to the utility industry, it created an on-site telecommuting center, which features an advanced wireless data network. The center supplements telecommuting by providing a place where homebased employees can meet and work with each other. It now supports roughly 20 percent of the company's work force, helping it save on office expenses: Without the center, ConnexT would need seven floors of office space; they now use only four.

"We've been able to reduce costs, use less space and allow people to commute less," says 44-year-old president and CEO Robert Bismuth. "It's really quite a dramatic difference."

While most small companies don't have a need for a telecommuting center of this kind, many can reap similar rewards by allowing employees to work from home, typically from one to three days a week. If you're considering this option, first examine the scope of your proposed telecommuting program. Then look at such issues as the type of hardware and applications you'll need and whether remote access to your on-site network will be necessary.

Technology First

Choosing the right technology is crucial to the success of any telecommuting program. At a minimum, every employee will need a PC, a modem and probably a printer. You may find you'll need to provide equipment and pay for additional phone/data lines as well.

Remote access software that allows off-site workers to access office-based applications and files, transfer files, and keep files synchronized on both host and remote systems is another consideration. There are two kinds of remote access software: Remote control software provides direct dial-in access to a networked workstation through a modem connected to that workstation, while remote node software provides access to the network through a shared modem or communications server.

One remote access program to look at is Symantec's pcANYWHERE32 8.0 for Windows 95/98/NT ($170) ( http://www.symantec.com ). This program supports both remote control and remote node access software.

To transfer files between office and home computers, simply drag and drop them onto your hard drive. The synchronization feature creates identical files on two PCs so there's no duplication. Users can also remotely launch programs on their office PCs simply by clicking on the pcANYWHERE32 connection icon. You don't have to jump through hoops to configure this program, either. Homebased employees can get up and running with one-click Quick Start wizards that quickly and easily guide you through the process.

Another remote access program, CoSession Remote 32 V8 for Windows 95/NT ($69 for a one-user version; $579 for a 10-user version) from Artisoft ( http://www.artisoft.com ), has basic drag-and-drop file transfer capabilities as well as file synchronization capabilities. It also contains a neat Voice Chat feature so you can talk with another party while accessing his or her PC remotely (sound card and microphone required).

Modems for Internet access and connecting to your network, if necessary, are the next pieces of technology to put in place. If telecommuters have basic e-mail and Internet access needs, a 36K or 56K modem with a dial-up account through an ISP will probably suffice. If they have more advanced needs, however, such as access to office-based files, it may be worth the extra cost to invest in a speedier ISDN line. To set this up, have your employees ask their local telephone companies to install a digital line and provide the proper equipment.

Fax On Demand

Next, there's the matter of faxing. You have the option of purchasing either a stand-alone fax machine or a PC faxing program like Symantec's WinFax PRO 9.0 for Windows 95/98/NT ($119). WinFax PRO allows you to send and receive electronic documents directly from your desktop. New features of WinFax PRO include an improved Send screen that makes it easier to compose and edit a fax before it's addressed and sent, and pager support for automatic notification when you've received an important fax. Other useful features: low-cost Internet faxing and easy integration with phone books, contact management programs and external databases.

If you're looking for one easy-to-implement solution, check out Symantec's recently released pcTelecommute for Windows 95/98/NT ($99), a set of tools designed specifically for telecommuters. Scaled-down versions of pcANYWHERE32 and WinFax PRO give you the power to access information from your office, transfer files and perform basic fax functions. The DayEnd Sync feature automatically notifies you at the end of each day which files have changed, and prompts you for an automatic file synchronization with your office PC. Call Screening lets you keep your focus by showing you directly on your computer screen who's calling (caller ID service required).

All these tools and more are accessed via pcTelecommute's Telecommute Control Center. This simple interface lets you quickly access your inbox to view a log of faxes and phone calls you've sent and received. There's also a Contacts icon to bring up important contact information; an Office button for remote office machine access, file synchronization and transfer; and a Work Monitor area to view a log showing changes in documents, duration of calls and more. In addition, pcTelecommute comes with antivirus software, written and online materials from leading telecommuting specialists, and a phone line splitter.

Put It To The Test

Besides utilizing the most appropriate technology, it's crucial to put a few procedures in place. Doing so sets protocol and notifies all employees of your policies and expectations for the telecommuting program.

First, insist that all equipment be installed before employees are allowed to begin telecommuting. You don't want to be working out major glitches in the system or have workers cut off from the office because modems and phone lines have yet to be installed.

Key managers must also be trained in how to manage telecommuters. Many managers like the idea of telecommuting--just not for their employees. They often worry about loss of control and their ability to keep a close eye on workers. Explain the benefits of telecommuting to them and the methods for communicating with and monitoring employees. Start out with a small group of telecommuters before full deployment so everyone can ease into the transition.

Developing a written telecommuting policy is key. At ConnexT, potential telecommuters are given a company telecommuting policy that contains an expense sheet, an individual checklist for determining whether their job is suited for telecommuting, a telecommuting agreement that outlines what's expected of them, and a list of the equipment and services the company will provide. Be sure to cover such issues as eligibility for participation, expected work hours, personal use of company-owned equipment and provisions for staying in touch.

Finally, create methods for measuring the effectiveness of your program and evaluating changes in productivity and employee morale. Continue to make adjustments as more employees become integrated into this new working style. Says Bismuth, "We've made a very strategic decision about how we're going to run the company in the future. Once you get started [telecommuting], you have to be committed to making it work."

Next Step

  • Check out leading telecommuting consultant Gil Gordon's Web site at http://www.gilgordon.com . Here you can read valuable telecommuting tips and access the Telecommuting Tools section for vendor contacts.
  • Telework Analytics International Inc.'s Web site, http://www.teleworker.com , contains various telecommuting resources, an analysis of key advantages and disadvantages for businesses, and links to related Web sites.

Contact Source

ConnexT Corp. , (800) 706-1976, http://www.connext.com