When I first launched Working Solutions in 1996, virtual call centers were a largely unknown entity. The Internet was just taking off in the mainstream, and the most exciting promises of the World Wide Web were the latest tech gadgets and flashiest websites. No one wanted to talk about something as mundane as call centers, even virtual ones.
Nowadays, remote working has become one of the hottest trends across a number of industries, thanks in no small part to the recession, the rise in the number of solo entrepreneurs, and the explosive growth of cloud computing and the countless applications it has spawned.
Benefits of Remote Work for Employees and Employers
Still, few companies have embraced remote work as a viable option for its employees, even for those in jobs that require little or no customer or employee interaction. Countless studies have shown that remote work opportunities can bring a host of benefits not only to your staff but to your bottom-line as well.
From the very real monetary benefits accrued by the company due to lower staff turnover, higher productivity, and lower real estate costs, to the equally compelling benefits realized by employees such as lower stress levels, fewer sick days, and the possibility of achieving that elusive “work-life balance,” remote work programs can actually be a critical asset to the company, one that can propel it to the next level of growth and success.
Steps to Achieve a Viable Remote Work Solution
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to create a remote work solution overnight, regardless of your commitment. From the company culture to the legal implications of a telecommuting workforce, there are a number of factors that must be considered before fully implementing a remote work program. Even the most carefully planned programs will face some obstacles, but there are some things you can do to minimize the bumps on the road to managing a virtual workforce:
- Determine what operations can be done remotely. Technology has allowed everything from customer service to accounting to sales and marketing to be conducted primarily from home. While not every company will want a virtual receptionist greeting incoming visitors, they may want to experiment with sending home their web developers, marketing team, bookkeepers, or even customer service team.
- Prepare to invest in the technology. Many startups and very small businesses that rely on remote workers expect them to use their own computers and even software. While this may work for truly cash-strapped companies and those that are 100% virtual, most should expect to fully outfit their remote workers with all the technology they need to do their job and maintain contact with the home office. That may include laptops, headsets, speakers, webcams, printers, scanners, and smartphones, to name a few essentials. Don’t forget to invest in the software required to perform remote IT maintenance as well, so your team will always be able to get help should they experience problems with their company equipment.
- Create a communications plan. Eventually, you’ll figure out the best communications and meeting schedule for your team. Some teams do well with just ad hoc meetings, while others prefer the structure and predictability of regularly scheduled meetings with set agendas. In the beginning, however, you’ll want to create a communications plan that includes face-to-face meetings (if necessary and/or possible), all-hands meetings, individual meetings, and performance reviews.
- Evaluate performance benchmarks and reviews. Your current performance reviews may not reflect the different environment and working conditions of remote work solutions. A remote work program is often based on the ROWE idea pioneered by Best Buy: a Results-Oriented Work Environment. If, however, part of your performance review includes non-ROWE factors such as attendance, overtime, or even the number of hours spent doing a particular job, it may be time to overhaul those reviews.
- Make your training virtual. Virtual classrooms and training programs have been around for as long as the Internet has, but they’ve really come into their own in the wake of cloud computing’s emergence as the cornerstone of Web 3.0. The benefits of virtual training can extend to on-premise employees, too, since they can take advantage of on-demand classes and conferences without ever having to leave their desk.
- Make sure your workforce is ready. As a recent NPR feature revealed, not every worker is so keen on working from home. If you’re planning on testing a remote work solution in your company, poll your current workforce to see who would be interested in trying it out, and then launch a test pilot that includes just those who responded favorably to your poll. This will allow you to iron out the kinks of a remote work program before expanding it to include other departments.
- Recruit proactively. Let’s face it: more and more work is moving online, and the workforce is following it. Even if you don’t plan on making your entire company virtual, think about what you’re looking for in a remote worker as you recruit for job openings. The characteristics that define a successful remote worker often overlap with those required of any successful 21st-century professional: self-discipline, ability to self-motivate, highly organized, excellent communication skills, and a talent for solving problems.