Apr 01 2005

At Work In A Virtual World

Work is something you do, not someplace you go, say telecommuting advocates. But make sure your teleworkers know what to do and how to do it.


IT Director Robert Thornburg and David Proctor, Co-founder and Vice President, Next Wave Logistics

When small-business owner David Proctor needs to hire new employees, his job postings read something like, "Wanted: Seasoned software developers with 7+ years experience for a small but fast-growing company. Ideal candidates must be self-starters who can work from home."


Proctor's company, Naperville, Ill.-based Next Wave Logistics, develops Web tools for network-marketing and direct-selling companies, such as Pampered Chef and Southern Living at Home. All of the company's 35 employees telecommute, which saves money on office space and results in happier workers, he says. They have the flexibility to work their own hours and avoid long commutes, which improves the quality of their lives and increases time with their families.


"It comes down to trust and communication," says Proctor, vice president of the firm. "We're a software company and the proof is in the deliverables. There are deliverables weekly, if not multiple times per week. And with the phone, e-mail and instant-messaging, communication is easy."


Teleworking is booming in corporate America, and small businesses are no exception. The number of teleworkers has more than doubled from 11.6 million in 1997 to 24.1 million in 2004, according to the American Interactive Consumer Survey, an annual survey of consumer trends by the Dieringer Research Group, a Milwaukee-based research firm. About 18 percent of all employed adult Americans telecommute at least one day a month. More than half (54 percent) of businesses with 20 to 99 employees allow part of their workforce to telecommute, according to Boston-based Yankee Group.


These businesses use telecommuting for many reasons. Many, including Next Wave Logistics, not only save money on office space and furniture, but also find that it's a good employee recruitment tool because it lets workers better manage their work and other obligations. Despite the benefits, however, small businesses need to watch for pitfalls. Telecommuting is not for everyone, nor is it appropriate for all types of jobs. But being too selective about who is allowed to telecommute can cause jealousy and dissension among employees. In many cases, business owners must walk a fine line and judge employees and situations on a case-by-case basis.


Innovative managers, aided by advances in technology, have driven telecommuting's growth, say analysts.


"It's grown because companies have recognized the need for flexibility with employees and the availability of mobile technology, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and virtual private networks (VPNs), that boosts remote worker productivity," says Chris Liebert, a senior research analyst of small- and medium-sized businesses for the Yankee Group.


Generally, the need to work out of the office for a sales meeting or to visit existing clients has contributed to the proliferation of telework, says Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant who owns Gil Gordon Associates in Monmouth Junction, N.J.


"We're seeing the trend away from the narrow view of telecommuting as either full time in the office or full-time telecommuting," Gordon explains. "Now it's morphing into more of a broader mobility. In one week, for example, you're two days in the office, two days on the road visiting a client and one day at home." The trend is for people to work from wherever they can add the most value, he notes. "It's like that quote from Woody Leonhard's book, The Underground Guide to Telecommuting: 'Work is something you do, not someplace you go.' And it's happening."


A Virtual Company


When Proctor launched Next Wave Logistics five years ago with co-founder Harold Zimmerman, they decided it would be a virtual company with employees working out of their homes. They did, however, rent a 750-square-foot office to serve as a headquarters, where employees could hold meetings.


Proctor says telecommuting has fostered loyalty among the workforce. In fact, only two workers have ever quit the company. Some employees have young children, and working from home gives them extra time with their kids. Staffers can run errands for a few hours, just as long as they make up the work hours later in the day.


"We're saying, 'We expect a lot out of you. We won't look over your shoulder. We won't micromanage. Why don't you work from home and get face time with your children?'" Proctor says. "We have some developers who are up at 1 or 2 a.m. working because they took half a day off. It's fine as long as you get stuff done and make your deadlines."


The benefits of telecommuting outweigh any negatives, says Robert Thornburg, Next Wave's IT director.


"The flexibility to set your own schedule is the main benefit for me," he says. "There have been times I've had early morning appointments. I have to get out of bed early in the morning, go out to the car, sit in traffic and think, 'I don't know how I used to do this.' When you can roll out of bed and in two minutes be at your desk, that's just amazing."


Ernest Forsyth, IT Manager, Clique Communications

Similarly, Clique Communications in Hopewell, N.J., allows its 45 employees, particularly software developers, to telecommute to foster their creativity and productivity. The company builds communications tools for businesses, schools, medical facilities and government agencies.


"Developers tend to be people who work long hours. We know they work best in their setting, so we try to cater to that," says Ernest Forsyth, Clique's information technology manager.


However, telecommuting doesn't erase the need for personal contact, Proctor points out. Almost every Next Wave Logistics employee lives in the Chicago area, so they occasionally meet at the office, then go to lunch.


These meetings never start on time because everyone is catching up with one another. "If we meet at 9 a.m., the meeting doesn't start until 9:45 a.m. It turns into 'social hour,' but that's just part of the deal," Proctor says. "There's the connection that needs to happen."


The Telecommuting "Type"


CEO Takeaway
Consider which jobs are best suited for telework and establish a policy accordingly.
Think carefully about the personalities of potential telecom-muters. Some employees may not have the discipline or self-motivation to work from home.
Make sure teleworkers attend regular company meetings. Nothing can replace face-to-face contact.
Determine whether you want IT to monitor remote worker e-mail and Web usage. If so, make workers aware of the policy.

"The flexibility is great and allows people to have a good quality of life, but it takes a certain type of person to work from home," says Cheryl Toth, a Patagonia, Ariz.-based consultant who telecommutes for Alexandria, Va.-based Medical Alliances Inc. "You have to make sure everyone is able to work alone and get stuff done, that they're good communicators and good with follow-through, or else they are a management nightmare."


Proctor suggests carefully monitoring new telecommuters to make sure they are productive. Companies experimenting with telecommuting should start slowly, allowing workers to telecommute once or twice a week at first to track their productivity.


Gordon advises small businesses to offer teleworking only if it solves a business problem, such as cutting costs on office space, and not as a perk to select employees. If a small-business owner gives telecommuting privileges to one worker and not another, it could cause dissension, he explains. Make your telecommuting policy clear: Some job assignments, such as sales positions, are more conducive to teleworking, and telecommuting privileges are contingent upon maintaining good job performance.


"Be selective," he says. "No matter what size the firm is, [the success of telecommuting] depends on the right job or the right person."