Is Working from Home a Viable Option for Your Employees?
Keeping up with a middle market company's growth is often challenging. You'll likely face many challenges, such as finding additional manufacturing facilities or negotiating new office space. Resolving these tasks takes time, money and careful attention. There is one big way to make it easier, though: letting employees telecommute. This tactic can be an appealing alternative to expanding your facilities.
Assuming people keep up their normal pace, remain productive and communicate efficiently, working from home may be a win-win for your people and your company. However, there are a number of important considerations to make before giving the go-ahead.
The Pros and Cons of Offering a Work-From-Home Option
The arguments in favor of working from home are strong:
- Expansion without expense: Letting employees telecommute conserves space in your office. With this strategy, you can likely coordinate schedules so you don't have more people on the premises than space.
- Scalability: Depending on the nature of your business, having people work from home should be easily scalable.
- Low-risk trial: Implementing a work-from-home policy doesn't come with a long-term commitment. If it doesn't work, you can simply call it off.
- Improving your benefits package: Telecommuting is an added perk that could help your company attract and retain employees.
- Remote offices: Your middle market company may have an easier time expanding when it allows people in remote markets and territories to telecommute. This arrangement can suffice until the area is sufficiently developed to support a physical office location.
However, there are equally strong reasons to think carefully about such a program:
- Management issues: Managing employees without face-to-face interaction can be challenging, especially for managers who have not previously worked with telecommuters.
- Incompatibility: Not all employees work well remotely because some individuals lack the self-discipline to stay on task.
- Technological issues: Providing adequate communications and technical support is harder with remote workers. If one system goes down, your employees may not be able to talk to their teams or meet deadlines.
- Lost opportunity for collaboration: People who are working from home lose the element of personal interaction that often creates an innovative atmosphere.
- Personal device issues: Telecommuters depend on their own Internet connections and computers to maintain communications with corporate headquarters. There is a lot that can go wrong here.
Luckily, there are ways for a midsized company to manage these issues. It comes down to two types of policies: technology and management.
Solving Technology Problems
The technical issues associated with employees working from home have been investigated and mitigated over the years. For example, specialized phone systems now allow telecommuters to receive calls remotely and gain access to the company's voice communications system. If fax is necessary, modern tools allow it to be managed with Internet-delivered fax images.
One big obstacle for middle market companies is giving employees access to software they need for work. You're likely using more sophisticated and extensive applications than a start-up, which means there's no off-the-shelf product to provide to home workers. There are two ways to address the issue.
First, your company could leverage a virtual private network, or VPN. This technology extends your network over the Internet through an encrypted channel so your data remains secure. However, certain software may not operate on a VPN as it would on a normal network. In addition, if an employee's computer has security issues, it could give malware a route into your systems.
Another option is desktop virtualization. Instead of running software on the employee's computer, the operating system and applications run on your servers. Because all work is done there, you don't have to worry about updating applications on remote employees' computers or whether the configuration is adequate for corporate needs. Instead, the remote computer acts like a window into the corporate system and the employee can use whatever applications are necessary.
Properly Managing Remote Workers
Technology is useful, but it never solves all problems. You still need to properly manage remote workers to circumvent the telecommuting system's weaknesses.
First and foremost, employees should get manager or supervisor permission to work from home. The decision should include a number of factors, including how self-directed the employee is, the nature of his or her work and any potential disruption if communication becomes a problem.
A pilot program is probably the best way to start your work-from-home initiative. Most issues related to remote work can be addressed — otherwise, you wouldn't see so many well-established companies using this strategy. An initial trial will allow you to find the specific pain points for your business, address them and then prove to management that working from home is viable. You can then expand the effort as needed and keep monitoring the results to ensure productivity remains high and work gets done efficiently.
Does your company allow employees to work from home? What was the biggest challenge associated with the shift and what did you do to overcome it? Let us know in the comments below.
Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc. and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+.