Remote Workers: Avoiding Double Trouble That Comes with Them

Meeting both security and productivity challenges - as firms sharply increase use of flexible employee basing - is essential.

As if to underscore the growing importance of the topic, a recent survey of 1,400 CFOs tackled a single question: corporate acceptance of arrangements for offsite workers. But how the finance executives answered the question was just as noteworthy.

Asked whether "remote work arrangements within your company increased, decreased or remained the same in the last three years," fully a third told the researchers at temporary-accounting services firm Accountemps that such arrangements had risen. And those saying such arrangements had increased greatly totaled 11%. Only 4% saw a decrease, with 57% citing no change, and 7% saying the question didn't apply in their case.

"It's something that has been evolving every year for five or more years now," says Dawn Fay, district president of Robert Half International, the parent of staffing and consulting services firm Accountemps. "There's a host of reasons for it, and technology is the biggest" --- especially in broadband expansion and the development of collaboration software tools, says Fay, who is responsible for 15 Robert Half offices in New York and New Jersey.

On the cost-saving side, of course, corporate adopters can slash real estate, energy, and other outlays by reducing permanent offices and other operations in favor of remote workers. But the same activity is attractive to the many modern employees who seek flexibility in their work arrangements.

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Indeed, a still oft-quoted Forrester study two years ago predicted that the 34 million U.S. telecommuting population at the time would "swell to 63 million by 2016," noting that the new commuters alone, "lined up five abreast would stretch from New York to LA!"

Being Secure, and Productive

But in an interview, Fay notes that the cost-saving and employee-pleasing advantages -- and the rapid growth -- come with two huge challenges for corporate finance departments. An each challenge has the potential for undoing all the positives of remote work arrangements.

"Security, for starters," she says when asked which of her concerns is greater. That's especially true because the offsite employment trend has been accompanied by another technology-based expansion: the use of personally owned communication devices for company business.

"You've got to make sure the individuals working remotely are on company equipment" when possible, or at least that the personal equipment that they use "has all the needed security in place, so that a random person can't hop on their smartphone and laptop." She adds: "The trend toward personal equipment has been a very hot topic for the whole C-suite, not just CFOs. You've got to make sure you have a really good technical team in place."

Perhaps the more difficult challenge --- because of the element of psychology it entails -- is keeping productivity high in the new age of offsite employment. In Fay's work with companies in the field, she says, she often encounters managers who are blindsided when an individual's level of output deteriorates. "Some think, 'Oh, that person has worked for me for years; now he's going to start working remotely, so things can only get better.'"

'Remote Control'

The Robert Half and Accountemps organizations see planning as the answer to both the security and productivity pitfalls.

"Businesses that are considering remote work arrangements should set clear policies and establish specific productivity goals," says Max Messmer, the Accountemps chairman, who may be almost as well-known for his authorship of the Human Resources Kit for Dummies.

In a position paper accompanying the report on its brief questionnaire, it outlines several areas in which companies must plan carefully to establish what it calls "remote control," and meet the challenges of the diffused workforce.

Communicating regularly --- through telephone and in-person arrangements, rather than via email --- helps companies get the word out, and keeps employees feeling more connected both with managers and colleagues. Meanwhile, finding proper resources to keep employees hooked up, with the right security systems, is just as important.

Software and Checkpoints

"This cannot be a one-size-fits-all operation," says Fay. But in all cases "there have to be reporting metrics in place." Choosing the right software for the company's needs is vital, as is aligning access to an employee's specific job function. She recommends frequent recap sessions -- weekly or more often -- detailing what teams with offsite components have accomplished.

"You have to have more checkpoints in place when you have a lot of remote workers," according to Fay. In an office setting more checkpoints are naturally in place, "because you see employees at the water cooler, or in the lunchroom."

An overall plan benefits from having regular meetings or seminars, "where individuals can come together and not only share knowledge, but establish camaraderie."

Use systems like Skype to help the connections grow. Newsletters, too, should become a more important part of the plan when more workers are remote. "And use lots of pictures of individuals; it helps pull the teams together."

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