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Managing Remote Workers

Homework for the President

Homework for the President

Weekday mornings and all day on Mondays and Fridays, Paul Purdue can be found working in the same room of his farmhouse where he started iFulfill.com Inc., a shipping company serving e-tailers, in 1998. The arrangement lets Purdue spend more time with his family, and VPNs, IM and internet telephony allow him to work from home, including managing the 31 people who ship thousands of packages daily from their Maumee, Ohio, warehouse.

"If an employee IMs me or dials my extension, they get me just as if I were sitting there," says Purdue, 43. "Frequently, people will communicate with me and then go into my office and be surprised by my 'absence.'" He's far from completely out of the office, however. By remotely accessing the corporate computers via a network at his house, he can tell when people arrive at work, how many packages are waiting to be shipped--even who last touched a misplaced shipment.

But technology doesn't have an answer when he is dealing with customer-relations issues and employee disputes when he's not in the office. "Sometimes, communication isn't clear when you're e-mailing," Purdue says. "So every once in a while, I'll ask people to call me, or I'll call them." For example, while he was on vacation once, he got an IM from an employee complaining about another worker. While he was reading that, he recalls, "another [message] popped up from the other employee talking about the first. The solution was to pick up the phone."

Many issues wait until Purdue is actually in the office. "A lot has to do with management structure," he says. "I used to do everything. Now I have a production team, a warehouse manager and a sales manager. The day-to-day things are overseen by managers in those departments. If we were smaller, this would be harder to do from home."

By monitoring workers electronically and in person, Purdue is following one of the tips laid out by Grantham: "Have regularly scheduled check-in times with your teammates." Perhaps more important is the can-do attitude Purdue has developed in growing his company to its current size, with $7.2 million in projected sales this year. "You have to have an attitude that says you can do this, you are in control," Grantham says. "All that leads to learning behaviors to minimize the stress and the uncertainty."

A Tale of Two Cities

In January 2004, Jennifer Fallon, 34, started My Wedding Favors, an e-tailer of wedding and party favors, as a part-time business run from her Atlanta home with her father's help. When her parents relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, My Wedding Favors went along shortly afterward. But rampant growth in the company's first year--estimated 2004 sales are $1.44 million, and projected 2005 sales are $2.1 million--has created a challenge for the former software sales professional, who still makes her home in Atlanta.

Here's the setup: There are six people at the Birmingham warehouse, one customer service representative working from home in Birmingham, an Atlanta-based web designer and an assistant who works in Fallon's home. To top it off, there are also several part-time contractors in Atlanta and India helping to tune up a search engine marketing effort that has proved to be essential to the company's success. Of all this, says Fallon, working from home in Atlanta has been the most challenging.

Like Purdue, Fallon is able to monitor sales and shipping in detail by using a fast internet connection and software that lets her tap into the company computers from home. E-mail is her primary mode of communication, supplemented with conference calls between her, the shipping manager, the office manager in Birmingham and the two lead customer service representatives when a sticky situation arises.

But she still drives to Birmingham every two weeks. One problem has been finding a reliable person to oversee the remote main office--one office manager already had to be replaced. "As a manager before, I felt it was important to evaluate whether [employees] were continuing to develop skills," she says. "Now I can't do that. I have to rely on my office manager and have more meetings with her."

Fallon's need to see employees is common, says Platt. "This is based on the way most of us have managed in the past," she says. "We've managed activity, and if we can't see activity, we don't know the work is getting done. When you're managing remotely, you need to manage results."

When the issue goes beyond results, it's usually due to a lack of trust, Platt says. And building trust is about conveying expectations--both ways. Employees have to know what the entrepreneur expects, and the entrepreneur has to know what the employees expect. Miscommunication of expectations led to Fallon's unsuccessful first hire.

"Talk not just about the work but about how you're going to work together," Platt advises. "Focus the discussion on the expectations, because that's where the trust breaks."

Why Do It?

When researchers asked companies around the globe why they were using more teleworkers, the top answers had to do with better access to the network and better communication facilities at remote sites. Globalization, cost-cutting and business continuity (dispersing staff reduces the risk of a disaster at headquarters halting or slowing operations) all outranked pressure from employees.

Here are the reasons for increased use of teleworkers at companies worldwide in 2003 (as percentage of respondents):

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of AT&T

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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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