Your workers don’t want to be in the office all the time. You don’t know how to manage them if you can’t see them. Here’s some advice: Rebecca Ormond is part of a growing breed of workers in the knowledge economy. She’s creative director for the Fresh Space Group, a Toronto-based small business promotional company. She’s also a teleworker and road warrior. She runs her business from multiple geographic locations and maintains her links to clients and businesses through the Web. “The number one benefit for me is the flexibility. I mainly work from home, but I also rented an office space in the Business Incubator in downtown Toronto.”
She’s not alone: teleworking is a burgeoning trend among employers across North America, with dramatic year-over-year increases. According to InnoVisions Canada (IVC), nearly 50 per cent of large businesses in Canada now have teleworking as part of their company’s employment structure.
In theory, there are a lot of benefits to having staff working remotely and yet it’s tough to convince all managers to adopt this strategy. Supervising employees is a fine balance between worker autonomy and a formal management structure and many managers still believe in the corporate adage “If I can’t see them, how do I know they’re working?” So what are some ways for managers to work with their teleworking employees and to cultivate a productive working relationship? Here’s some good advice on making it work.
Focus on results, not face time
Jonathan Tepper, director of information technology at the Toronto-based Greenwood College School, manages one full-time teleworker and two outsourced teleworker consultants. He believes that being an effective manager of teleworkers is less about keeping an eye on his staff and more about focusing on what his staff accomplishes.
“It is a mindset. It is best to look at the results, not just the process or day-to-day details. With a good teleworker relationship, there seems to be fewer issues when we roll out new services or plan for upcoming events.
One reason for this may be that “my teleworkers tend to commit more time in developing better solutions.”
Michelle Warren, president of Toronto-based MW Research and Consulting, said this arrangement is predicated on recognizing differences in people’s approaches to work. “Certainly, the younger generation is looking for options in terms of flexibility and a work-life balance. They’re starting families, they want to juggle their responsibilities.
“This gives the employee more control over their time and empowers them with the ability to make choices as to what they do and when.”
Given that reality, start with the basic principle that being chained to a desk doesn’t mean a worker is more productive.
Communicate, and then communicate more
As in any relationship, the key to success is staying in touch. For teleworkers, this is especially the case. Warren said that for teleworking to be effective and to overcome issues of trust, it is vital to keep channels of communication open.
“A cohesive corporate culture takes time to foster and it takes time to teach employees how to fit into that culture. There has to be constant contact to keep a state of belonging,” Warren said.
“I was a teleworker and it was hard. When I made the move to home, could they trust me and could I trust them? We had to work to foster that and encourage that trust. Keep the lines of communication open. It was built in over time.”
Tepper agrees that trust between a manager and teleworkers is the main ingredient to a positive working relationship. “By supporting my teleworker through planning, priority management and a little footwork in gathering details, he provides faster support and offers more proactive results for the school’s upcoming needs,” he said.
“I learned, new to the management of teleworkers space, that small, frequent communications worked best; check in often. In my initial daily communication, either by phone or e-mail, I took a bit of time asking about family or the weekend before jumping into status reports or requests.
“This helps with personalizing the offsite relationship.”
Zaigham Zulqernain is the senior partner at Toronto-based Bamboo Media Arts & Strategy Agency, a media communications planning firm. For every client his organization takes on, he manages anywhere from five to 25 remote workers at a time. He said that it’s an essential mix of both online and offline communication that makes remote relationships work.
“In most traditional offices, they tend to use MSN and e-mail to communicate. This is no different. Depending on the project, in-person meetings are either every day or once a week. But through Skype, e-mail, MSN and Twitter, there is a constant flow of contact.
“We also use online project management software to track workflow and keep in-touch with the client. If the constant contact is not there, the client isn’t getting what they need and their business problem is not solved.”
Realize high-tech plus remote offices equals savings
The rise of stable high-speed digital networks and the widespread adoption of mobile computing via Wi-Fi, Unified Communications (UC) and smartphones means employees and employers are able to stay in regular contact. It also lowers costs.
Edmonton-based Acrodex provides teleworking infrastructure support. Laurie Shaw, National Unified Communications director for Acrodex, said that the availability of UC technology gives workers the freedom to be on the move and “multiple platforms, such as peer-to-peer video and landline communications will decrease operating costs for a business over time.”
Many organizations also use a teleworker’s own home-office equipment and Internet access to the company’s advantage. “I’ve easily saved 35 per cent of my operational costs, maybe more. Most people have their own computers and Internet at home and just build that cost into their invoices to the business,” said Zulqernain.
From a technical standpoint, the teleworking option is getting both simpler and cheaper. “It’s only going to be easier to do business wherever you go,” Shaw said.
And there are cost savings most companies don’t even consider. “The business can save money on real estate and on supplies such as coffee, printing and ink with teleworkers. Little things like that add up over the course of time,” Warren said.
Business also benefit from the reduction in electrical costs, network fees and hardware investments. According to IVC, companies such as AT&T save US$3,000 per office by reducing office space, creating up to $550 million in total cost savings. IVC also found roughly a quarter of IBM’s 320,000 workers telecommute from home offices, saving almost US$700 million in real estate costs.
Zulqernain also points to office space as one of the biggest advantages. “Having a full-time office is a big cost and having a full-time staff is a huge cost,” he said. “Operational costs that bloat a company tend to be stripped away [by remote workers] into a more lean mechanism focused solely on solving the clients’ business problem.”
And then there are the environmental benefits. “The great thing about teleworkers is there’s a big reduction in a worker’s carbon footprint,” Shaw said. “And it also increases employee morale and productivity by being at home in their work environment.”
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