Telecommuting is powered by people not technology

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven, Upstate Business Journal, March 28, 2014

There are a lot of reasons for the growth of telecommuting. The rise of gas prices, long commuting times in busy cities that add significantly to the work day, and - not to be overlooked - the ability of technology to make it possible.

Some 20 percent of American workers telecommute at least once per week and research suggests that could balloon to 60 percent before decade’s end . Studies also find most workers are happier with this arrangement.

While workers may be happier, their bosses are starting to wonder if they’re getting their monies’ worth. Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, wrote a recent piece for LinkedIn Pulse  that suggests that the more employees telecommute, the less engaged they are with the company, the more actively disgruntled they become and the greater the risk they will affect the attitudes of co-workers.

The level of engagement an employee-employer feel depends largely on how much we interact together. Having managed teams of remote workers before, I learned a lot of these lessons the hard way.

Companies that have both satisfied workers and happy managers are those who communicate frequently and on multiple levels.

Here are some ways to make remote work a more fulfilling and collaborative environment - even for a small business on a tight budget.1. Pick the right people. Not just the right person for the job, but the right person to manage the job. Not every manager is going to be good at supporting and supervising remote employees. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has a template and a list of qualities and skills you should see on both sides of the desk. 

2. Plan frequent contacts online. Seeing someone face to face (even virtually) makes a deeper connection than a phone call. Two to three contacts per week is not too much to keep remote workers in the loop. They don’t have to be long and they don’t have to be complicated. Make them quick touches with a point by using free and accessible tools.

Google Hangouts is a quick way to hop on a face to face, requiring nothing but a browser and a gmail account. It’s built more for fun than work, but that’s not always a bad thing.

Fuze does it all from one-on-ones to full-featured webinars. Content collaboration, whiteboarding  and screen sharing are all included in free accounts covering meetings with up to 25 people on VOIP and up to 12 HD video streams. Your whole team can participate online - and why shouldn’t they? If they all get online everyone can see everyone. Isn’t that the idea?

There are many services but these two are free and are mobile, so you don’t have to be tied to your desk to participate.

3. Get out of your inbox. Way too many of us manage through email. A large percentage of emails are really task assignments or queries, but without the management functions required to track or monitor them. Outlook has many tools that let it be more collaborative - including a function to turn email into trackable tasks. Surprisingly, a lot of people who have been using Outlook all their working lives are surprised that these functions exist. There are other services used by companies with a large remote employee footprint, like Basecamp, 5 pm, Asana, Zoho are all designed to bring work teams together to collaborate on a project. The goal is task completion and all the tools are designed to track and manage the task.

All these tools have freemiums (free levels for reduced functions), but of them Asana provides its full menu of project management functions free for teams up to 15 people. A few premium features - like private project teams - are not included in the free version, but all the functions are. 

4. Put technology in its place. Telecommuting is really a management and communication issue. There are tools available that can log a remote employee’s time on task, do screen grabs at certain times of the day, capture browser history. You can do all these things, but if you feel you need to maybe either the employee should be working remotely or the manager isn’t managing.