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Companies are overcoming their concerns about remote working, and the technology to enable it is improving steadily. Nevertheless, remote working schemes need to be carefully planned.

Remote working has emerged as a key factor for many companies large and small. Employees can expand their working days, operate more productively–and in many respects, lead healthier lives. Employers save on office overhead, aren’t limited to hiring “local talent,” and get better performance from their staff. Companies are overcoming their concerns about remote working, and the technology to enable it is improving steadily. Nevertheless, remote working schemes need to be carefully planned.

As groups become more dispersed, effort needs to be made to preserve a strong corporate identity, while more efficient monitoring of employee work targets becomes vital. Executives considering a shift to remote working need to think through a wide range of issues such as which jobs are suitable for remote working, which technologies are needed, how to provide remote worker access to applications on their corporate networks in a secure way, management training and how best to re-deploy office space.

Thinking outside the cubicle

A 30-minute commute to work wastes an average of six working weeks a year. But the technology–and practical experience–exists to allow workers to spend part of their time working at home, in an environment that suits them better and saves on their employers’ overhead.

Indeed, the sheer number of hours demanded from workers today, especially those operating internationally, means that a more flexible, but elongated, working day makes more sense. Executives are waking up to this and are equipping their employees to work where, and when, they want to.

A recent survey carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of AT&T found that, for most company executives, giving their remote workers full access to the corporate network is one of their highest priorities. When asked which network performance attribute was most critical to their business, 81 percent described as either “critical” or “important” the ability of their employees to gain full access to network applications from remote locations.

Though white-collar workers are most often associated with remote working, it is by no means restricted to office-based jobs. For instance, utility companies are finding it efficient to supply field engineers with wireless mobile devices that they can use to download schedules at home before going directly to the customer armed with the relevant data.

According to the survey, 64 percent of executives consider sales functions suited to remote working. Nearly 50 percent of respondents considered customer service functions suitable, and 40 percent research and marketing functions.

By contrast, only 26 percent deemed remote working suitable for senior management, and just 18 percent were in favor of it for those performing financial functions.

Despite the growing acceptance of telecommuting, there seems to be a lingering view that unless workers are physically monitored, they won’t work. Indeed, the difficulty of monitoring output of remote workers emerged as the main perceived obstacle to implementing remote working.

It is true that managers have to get used to dealing with staff they can’t see. But there is no reason why, if there is a proper system of setting targets, output will not be managed as efficiently as before. In fact, supervising remotely should instill a better style of management by demanding regular communication between manager and remote team member and better monitoring.

The loss of face-to-face contact–which also emerged in the AT&T survey of one of the strongest concerns of executives–poses a more serious challenge. Improved communications using voice-over IP technology (VoIP) can assist in keeping people in touch. Similarly, personal blogs on the corporate Web site, recording out-of-the-office experiences, can help to build a sense of community in the diffuse workforce, as can online bulletin boards.

Stay in touch, won’t you?

That said, companies still need to design ways of maintaining face-to-face contact (for example, through weekly or twice weekly meetings at the office), and to recognize that remote working will not suit all employees. By the same token, an advantage of workers moving from verbal to e-mail or other Web communication is that it greatly expands the written documentation trail.

This can help not just in meeting compliance requirements, but also in such areas as documenting user needs for IT system requirements. In addition, more communication in writing means it will be easier to share information on a company’s intranet, aiding knowledge management throughout the firm.

In order to ensure the success of a remote working scheme, it is vital that the HR, IT, and facilities management departments work closely together to ensure that each respective area is properly addressed. Board-level support is required to coordinate this, just as attention needs to be paid to providing training and advice to local managers, since these are the people that may face the biggest adjustment.

In order to ease the transition, companies should consider what financial help they are prepared to give to employees–for example, with broadband charges–to set up their home offices.

Broadband makes the difference

Two technologies are particularly supportive of remote working: broadband and VoIP. Adoption of both is rocketing. The 2004 Economist Intelligence Unit survey showed that, in the case of 46 percent of companies, broadband–an essential requirement for the home office–is now installed in the homes of half or more of the workforce, up from just 27 percent in 2003. Moreover, this proportion is set to leap further to 70 percent in 2006.

In 2003 there were 4.4 million remote workers working at home with broadband. By 2004 the number had grown to 8.1 million, an 84 percent increase. Meanwhile, research in Europe shows the number of broadband subscribers rising just as strongly. The AT&T survey also shows that 21 percent of companies today use VoIP for remote working, and that 79 percent of executives expect their companies to be doing so in two years’ time.

In addition to lowering telephone costs, VoIP gives remote workers more functionality at home than is available with the traditional office-based private branch exchange (PBX) phone system. For instance, the office phone number can be routed for use at a home office, and VoIP opens the possibility of creating a virtual call center, re-directing calls to the right staff members wherever they happen to be. In this respect, employers may elect to assign headquarters phone numbers to remote workers in an effort to promote a client perception that they are always talking to headquarters staff.

Another benefit of VoIP is the additional flexibility provided by its speed of provisioning: employee locations can be reconfigured easily, without the need to reprogram the PBX or involve the telecoms service provider.

Strategies to make it work

In a remote working scheme, staff at all levels get the freedom to work where and when they want, but with the security of belonging to an organization. However, in order to ensure that the basic elements of a successful remote working scheme are in place, companies need to take the following steps:

— Carry out an audit throughout the company to find out which jobs are suitable for remote working. Ask the employees themselves. Though ripe for telework, their job may benefit from only one or two days per week off-site.

— HR, IT and facilities management need to be brought together to manage a remote working program effectively. None can do it singlehandedly.

— Engage the support of departmental managers. They are often the sticking point for remote working programs, as they perceive it as a threat to their control.

— Avoid hasty implementation. The technology and HR issues must have been fully resolved or the scheme will flounder. How to maintain a distinct corporate culture among a diffused workforce also needs careful consideration.

— Implement security in the form of a VPN. A home is not inherently less secure than an office and is likely to have fewer strangers passing in and out of it. Nonetheless, home broadband connections are generally less secure than dedicated corporate lines. A VPN removes a great part of this security risk.

— Consider offering to finance home office equipment and to pay for monthly broadband charges. Not only does this step create a perk for telecommuters, it confers ownership of equipment to the company.

— Ensure that interaction between managers and remote workers is sustained, and includes regular appraisals. A remote working program cannot succeed if this is overlooked. Local managers are more likely to need encouragement and training in order to adapt to the remote working environment than their subordinates.

This essay is based on information in a survey by AT&T in cooperation with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

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