Managing Remote Workers

Sounds like it's as easy as pushing a button, but managing workers remotely takes a lot of learning, communication and trust, as these entrepreneurs found out.

Work used to be a place where you went. But today, work is an activity instead of a location. And thanks to better, faster, cheaper and more flexible IT, employees and entrepreneurs can work from home, from the road, and from the other side of the world.

Long ago, telework passed from theory into practice. Now it's moving from unusual to ubiquitous. Fifty-four percent of companies worldwide reported having teleworkers in 2003, a number that will rise to more than 80 percent in 2005, says a survey conducted for AT&T by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the business information arm of The Economist magazine. Forty-four million U.S. employees work from home at least part time--a number that will rise to 51 million by 2008, according to a 2004 survey by Scottsdale, Arizona, market research company In-Stat/MDR.

What's driving the boom? Studies have found many benefits for employers and workers. Employees are happier because they're close to their homes and families; productivity increases thanks to extended working hours; and costs decline because of savings on travel and real estate.

Entrepreneurs are leading the telework charge, according to Kneko Burney, chief market strategist for In-Stat/MDR. "Small companies are home to the greatest number of telecommuters, more than half the total," she says. "The nature of these businesses--nimble, more integrated with home life-makes them ideal environments for at-home workers."

Behind the advantages, however, are limits and risks. Employing distributed workers does pay, but it will cost you, too. "Maintaining productivity is the issue people worry about most," says Lilly Platt, president of Legato Consulting, a distributed work team consulting firm in Newton, Massachusetts. "The first question they ask is, 'How do I know they're working when I can't see them?'"

Other key issues revolve around maintaining a cohesive corporate culture and sense of identity among people who may rarely or never set foot in the same room, says Dr. Charles Grantham, founder and executive producer of the Work Design Collaborative, a Prescott, Arizona, firm focused on increasing workplace productivity. "Coordination of joint activities, such as appointments and the flow of information, becomes more critical," he adds.

Technology offers us some answers. Grantham says, for instance, that collaboration software can smooth out communication and coordination issues. But while better hardware and software make telework more affordable and effective (go to "Wherever You Go, There You Are" for more on the subject), better management of teleworkers tends to depend on slippery concepts such as trust.

The rest of the solution comes down to management techniques. Telework has been around longer than technologies such as broadband and VoIP telephony--the term telecommute was coined in the early 1970s. In the interim, much progress has been made on finding ways to manage distributed workers and integrate them into conventional staffs. But just because you're good at running your company now doesn't mean you'll be good at it when telework becomes more common. "People who were fair as managers in the regular workplace are going to be challenged when managing remotely," Platt says.

Not every company will or should embrace telework equally, so not every firm's challenges will be the same. To provide a closer look at this topic, Entrepreneur identified three companies using distributed work forces. They include a company whose president and founder regularly works from home and on the road; a company whose CEO lives in a different city from its main operations center and employs home workers and even offshore contract employees in India; and finally, a company using a fully distributed work force with a president who works from home, travels frequently, has a satellite office, and also employs road warriors and telecommuters.

Each company faces different challenges and employs different solutions. One thing all have in common is that they agree there is no going back to the way things used to be.

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This article was originally published in the February 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Remote Control.

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