More than a year after prominent businesses like Yahoo and Best Buy rescinded their telecommuting policies, Premiere Global Services, International’s survey reveals that those high-profile decisions did little to impact the general trend toward an increasing mobile and remote workforce.
According to PGi’s survey, 89 percent of respondents reported telecommuting policy did not change during the past year. For those who did report a change, only six percent stated that their company ended an established program, according to PGi.
The survey findings reinforce what PGi has observed for years, says Sean O’Brien, PGi’s executive vice president of strategy and communications.
“The overwhelming majority of respondents said telecommuting was very much a win-win situation for both them and their employers, with 82 percent saying they have less stress associated with their work,” O’Brien says.
“That reduction in stress levels leads to higher morale, higher productivity and a reduction in absenteeism – all of which accrues to value for businesses,” O’Brien says.
In addition, O’Brien says, businesses see cost savings associated with reduced real estate costs and infrastructure costs, while also contributing to a cleaner environment, since employees aren’t commuting via car or transit.
The average savings for a worker who telecommutes two days a week is $3,800 a year; according to research from the Telework Research Network, the average cost savings for businesses who have employees working remotely full-time is $11,000 per year, O’Brien says.
Managing a Remote Workforce
Organizations can be less productive if they’re not cognizant of and willing to adopt remote working practices, says Jack Santos, research vice president, Gartner, in a recent webinar, Best Practices for Remote and Mobile Work. But there’s also a need to focus on some of the unintended consequences a mobile workforce can introduce and develop strategies to address those obstacles, Santos says.
Security is one of the key issues to address when managing a remote workforce, says Maren Donovan CEO and founder of Zirtual.com, a firm that specializes in staffing of remote virtual assistants for professionals.
“When an employee’s on-site, in person, it can be easy to ignore the security aspects, especially if they’re using corporate-sanctioned technology,” Donovan says. “But remote workers present a different challenge – they have access to corporate data, information and resources and it’s hard to keep track of how they’re using it and on what devices, not to mention it’s tough to make sure their devices are secure,” she says.
Making sure to have non-disclosure agreements in place as well as performing background checks can help assuage security concerns, Donovan says. And, of course, communication is key, Donovan says.
Fostering effective communication involves understanding how teams relate to each other both professionally and personally, both Donovan and Gartner’s Santos say. Allowing for casual social interaction whenever possible can improve productivity and morale, and nurture the bonds between team members who aren’t physically sharing the same office space.
There’s a need for emphasis on connectedness and collaboration, says Santos, and much of that happens at a personal level, he says. Don’t discourage the natural tendency of workers to socialize with each other and learn more about their colleagues’ personal lives, as that can actually lead to greater team performance, he says.
“The first few minutes of the meeting, for example, the off-topic parts where folks are asking about each other’s children, or talking about television shows they watch, or sports — whatever it may be — are the biggest contributor to trust, relationship building and better ‘contextual intelligence,'” Santos says.
“These conversations enable the people in the meeting to connect more strongly with each other not just as a co-worker, but as a father, a ‘real’ person, and that personal connection is extremely important to establish a foundation of trust,” he says.
“Trust is obviously one of the most crucial aspects to managing a remote workforce; that can be built as long as there’s constant, open and honest communication and feedback, transparency and solid expectations for accountability,” Zirtual.com’s Donovan says.
Provide Clear Direction and Focus on Results
But don’t get so caught up in the collaboration and communication aspects that you forget to provide clear direction and expectations, Donovan says. Make sure there are clear procedures and deadlines that are consistently maintained to make sure work is being completed effectively and efficiently, and to identify and address any roadblocks quickly, she says.
“We do weekly ‘stand-up’ calls to touch base and make sure we’re on top of what everyone’s working on, the status of projects, what their obstacles are and various dependencies — who they need to speak to, that sort of thing,” Donovan says.
With a remote workforce, it can be hard to follow what different colleagues and teams are working on, so using project management software that allows for transparency is a must, too, Donovan says.
“People will tend to wonder what other teams are doing. It’s not that they think other people aren’t working, but it’s more difficult from a remote-work situation to see what everyone else is doing and understand where projects are,” Donovan says. Besides weekly calls, Donovan suggests using virtual meeting tools,Google Hangouts, or even Skype to maintain a face-to-face connection between remote teams.
It’s also important to hold in-person meetings, events and gatherings, even if they aren’t frequent, to reinforce a culture of collaboration and connection, Donovan says.
“You really want to promote social interaction whenever possible,” says Gartner’s Santos. “The pressure to focus only on the business is huge, but you have to go beyond that focus to really open up a social connection between yourself and your colleagues,” he says.