Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

Managing a Remote Workforce

When I decided to write about this topic, my thinking was that companies have more and more people working remotely. But as I did research, I learned that many companies that had large numbers of people doing that have begun to scale back and bring people back to an office-type environment.

Vermont resident and management guru Tom Peters, author of about a dozen books on management, would be proud. He was an early advocate of bringing the idea people in an organization together in what he called a “skunkworks” where ideas flowed freely from person to person in open offices and at after-work gatherings at local pubs.

So while the trend may be reversing, there are still remote workers, and there will continue to be for some time to come. Remote work can also be a money saver as companies do not have to invest in the bricks and mortar needed for that employee. Multiply that saving by several employees and it can be substantial. But the downside is that the “skunkworks” aspect of the job is gone, and it is management’s job to make that culture available to the remote employees so that ideas continue to flow freely.

Management must use the tools that are available to assure that the system is as effective as it can be. The first tool is the interview, or discussion, with an existing employee hoping to join the remote workforce. This is not for everyone; although many people think “working from home” is the ideal situation, sometimes it is not. It must be a win-win.

About 10 years ago, the company we franchised from asked me to take over the management of the franchise division for six months. I worked from home. I wasn’t sure it would be for me but I gave it a try. One morning I saw my wife off to work (at my former office), I put on a sweat suit, and went to my office to check my email before showering and dressing for the day. There were some important emails and I worked on those, and one thing led to another, and when my wife returned around 6:30, I was still in that sweat suit. That is the way remote work is supposed to be.

Making sure ideas flow freely between the brick and mortar and the remote workforce is more difficult. Of course, the remote employee can always be summoned to headquarters for a meeting, but in some cases that is an expensive proposition and the meeting had better be important. Nobody likes a six-hour plane ride, a night in a hotel, and a dinner alone — all for a meeting that is boring and unproductive.

The remote workforce has given birth to many tools that are important to the day to day work. Others are Skype and Skype-like applications. Face-to-face contact is important, and Skype is the next best thing. It is far better than those remote call-in meeting sites where you had better mute your phone so nobody hears the occasional snore.

Another tool is Go to Meeting and similar programs. They enable everyone to see presentations that are needed to run the business.

Finally, there are the document sharing programs like Dropbox and Google Docs. These are important for everyone involved with a remote worker. Heck, they are even important if there are no remote workers involved.

Finally, the single most important management tool of all is regular contact with remote employees. If the employees were in-house, you would see them every day. That is not going to happen remotely but there needs to be a balance. Keep in touch — daily or weekly. Check in. Show them that you care. •

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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