REDMOND, Wash. — March 11, 2010 — According to a recent survey from Microsoft, remote-working programs can benefit employees and employers alike through increased productivity, reduced overhead and happier workers.
Sixty percent of respondents to the Microsoft Telework survey — conducted among 3,600 employees in 36 cities nationwide — say they are actually more productive and efficient when working remotely. With less time spent commuting and fewer cubicle "drive bys" causing distractions, respondents say, more time can be spent on the task in front of them.
The catch? By and large, employers aren't catching on. Only 41 percent of those surveyed work for companies with established remote-working policies, and just 15 percent believe their company supports flexible work arrangements. Despite a wealth of new technologies that can facilitate collaboration among workers no matter where they are, employers are still concerned about whether they're getting the most from employees.
But the reality today, according to many experts, is that an employee in a coffee shop in Sri Lanka could be nearly as visible and even more productive than the one sitting in an office. And indeed, there is growing evidence that remote work forces provide real business benefits.
Christine Durst, founder and CEO of Staffcentrix and author of two books on the subject of telework, says the benefits start with basic cost savings from travel, real estate and utilities. But they also include less quantifiable areas such as recruiting and retention — and, yes, productivity.
"Telework allows you to expand your talent pool beyond the 20-mile radius that most companies hire in, to literally anywhere in the world," Durst says. "That alone can lead to a productivity benefit, since you now have people working in different time zones and can cover more hours in a day. Add in the fact that more people want to work this way, and you have a powerful recruiting tool."
Durst's company, Staffcentrix, specializes in remote-work arrangements. Since founding the company in 1999, she's worked with hundreds of companies large and small to develop remote-working programs and analyze the results.
Durst says that besides being a great tool for recruiting and retention, telework programs can reduce absenteeism and tardiness, and even curb stress-related illnesses. But the one thing she hears again and again from remote employees is that they simply get more done. "One large company reported that remote employees were working an average of an hour more per day," she says.
It's easy to see how a quiet environment can lead to better concentration, but how can employees really work more hours in a day? The obvious answer, say experts, is that since remote workers are not spending significant time commuting, they have more time during regular business hours to focus on work.
Another answer, suggested by Microsoft's research, is that they simply take their work with them wherever they go: Respondents reported working in movie theaters, doctor's offices, on family vacations — even in the bathroom. With smartphones, telepresence, teleconferencing and instant messaging (IM), work is increasingly about staying connected all the time, as opposed to being physically present for part of each day.
While this evolution continues, many companies find themselves stuck in the middle. How do they balance the flexibility employees want with the control that companies need? Experts say many companies aren't sure how to begin, and allow remote work to become the subject of conflict between employees and managers.
Rieva Lesonsky, author and former editorial director for Entrepreneur magazine, says the most important thing is for companies to support remote workers — beginning with a formal company policy and the right equipment to get the job done. Even though most companies offer equipment such as laptops that can enable remote work, Lesonsky says, most do not have item No. 1 — a formal policy that covers the practice. And this can be a recipe for trouble.
"One classic mistake entrepreneurs make is not having formal policies," Lesonsky says. "Employees don't know what they can and cannot do, and different managers may have different rules of their own. They may work from home on Wednesday and come in Thursday to find it's no longer allowed."
That feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them — or having their career suffer in some way — is one of the main reasons workers choose not to work remotely, even if the company allows it. Lesonsky says creating a formal policy for remote work lets both employees and managers know what's appropriate and what's not, so nobody has to feel as if they're bending any rules.
"By codifying the terms of remote work, you're actually empowering people to work remotely," she says. "They won't have to worry about potential repercussions, because it's just company policy."
Durst says it's also critical for executives to endorse the remote-work policy created by the company, and for managers to be supportive of the practice and willing to communicate with employees in a variety of ways. For this reason, she says, selecting the right managers to oversee remote employees is a key part to the success of any pilot remote-work initiative.
"There's a certain type of manager that gets sweaty palms at the thought of not being able to see their work force," Durst says. "You should look for individuals who have a positive attitude toward telework and excellent communication skills. They should be results-driven and have superior delegation skills. And of course, they should show the willingness to be open to new ideas and change."
Equipment is another big area where employers often skimp, but would be wise not to, says Lesonsky. Beyond providing laptops, outfitting remote workers with the right computers, software, broadband access and telephone equipment helps ensure they can do their jobs most effectively and stay in touch with colleagues — a major concern for many remote workers that also is highlighted in Microsoft's survey.
"You don't want sluggish equipment or the lack of good communications to negate the productivity that's possible for remote workers," she says. "Make sure people are using some type of IM so they can stay in touch. People should be picking up the phone and talking to one another. Encourage frequent communication whenever possible, because you still want to have the camaraderie of a working situation."
Microsoft has been steadily building technologies over the past few years specifically to enable remote collaboration, going beyond IM to offer a wide variety of ways to keep workers in touch.
Cloud computing and Microsoft Online Services can provide a secure remote-working technology infrastructure. Unified Communications technologies build on Microsoft Exchange with IM, voice over Internet protocol, voice, telepresence, videoconferencing and message delivery to a broad range of devices. And soon, the recently announced Windows Phone 7 Series will enable people to work with Microsoft Office documents from anywhere.
No matter how productive people are, however, so called "face time" is still an important part of business in any industry. Lesonsky says successful remote-working organizations also make time to meet in person with some regularity, whether that's a weekly team meeting or a monthly get-together.
"You want to make sure everyone comes together as frequently as possible and not only discusses work but gets that time to maintain and build relationships with their coworkers," she says.
Although if your remote-working program really does take off, you may want to look into teleconferencing equipment for that coffee shop in Sri Lanka.