The loosening of ties to the office has several downsides. As increasing numbers of employees work from home or distant peripheral offices, they can quickly become disconnected from central office, feel demotivated and lose self-discipline. Much is written on how to be an effective teleworker, but less information is provided for the manager of a team which might come together once a week, once a month, or even less frequently. Yet by following a few basic principles it is possible to hold the team together as if it were meeting daily in the office.
The best tool for making teleworking more effective is, of course, the Internet. It can provide a forum for chat, a means for communication and technology to manage projects.
Products like eRoom Technologies' eRoom, SiteScape's Forum, Involv's Teamspace and Lotus' Quickplace allow managers and staff to work collaboratively and get projects completed on schedule. Converged voice and data technology like ML Integration can give home offices and mobile workers the same breadth and power as more conventional offices.
The management of a remote workforce presents different challenges which require a new set of techniques. Alistair Bremner, UK managing director of Saratoga Systems, says that traditional corporate communication infrastructures need to be replaced. Rigorous technology-driven infrastructures should instead be used so the remote worker can be supported by being included in internal communications and the critical exchange of information on customers.
He says, "The increasing demand for higher levels of customer service means that remote managers have to be more proactive than when they are office based. If not dealt with effectively, poor customer service can lead to an increased cost of sale instead of achieving an overall reduction in costs."
The reason for this, says Bremner, is that all too often remote workers operate in a microcosm and retain all knowledge about customer relationships. "The organisation can get pushed further and further apart and come adrift from understanding the customer," he says. "Without overall knowledge of all customers, the business risks developing an uneven, inappropriate and uninformed business strategy, such as misdirected product development and badly targeted marketing activity."
"Investment in customer relationship technology is crucial to the reintegration of remote workers, particularly the sales force," says Bremner. "Even if workers and the sales force are decentralised, information on customers and CRM [customer relationships management] must remain centralised and knowledge shared throughout the enterprise, otherwise the business will quickly suffer."
Hardware support can also be a challenge, not least because remote workers rarely have enough high-level technical skills to be able to resolve problems themselves. Bremner says, "Many remote workers have laptops which are highly vulnerable to damage or loss, not to mention technical difficulties which can also happen to a desktop machine."
A satisfactory answer is often to outsource technical support. John Harrison, manager of ICL's mobile user support services, says, "We provide a service which means that a teleworker can put in a call to our technical support team at any time of the night or day and we'll arrange to see them within 24 hours, anywhere in the country, and deliver a replacement piece of kit."
The hardware can be configured to the organisation's specifications, and different levels of service are available to suit different levels of employee demand.
But having the technology in place is only part of the story. The biggest issue is the cultural one, and the problem of getting people to work as effectively without the support of meeting colleagues daily and the intangible benefits of the "coffee machine syndrome". Workers can feel under even more pressure to work hard, and the combined effect of remote working can lead to more stress rather than less.
Remote workers often complain that they feel isolated, yet with the right approach there is no need for them to feel this way. Apart from technology which can create virtual chat-rooms and access to central IT as if the employee was at an office desk, a positive remote working culture needs to be developed. Sarah-Anne Bray, of Acer Technology, says, "You could call it gossip, but there needs to be easy contact at an idle conversational level with colleagues. This is possible despite infrequent face-to-face meetings and vast distances between individuals."
There should be a culture of information and communication, in which workers are encouraged to bring their problems to their office-based colleagues. Meetings should be arranged between remote workers who are nearer to each other than the office, and gossip should be prevented from becoming unpleasant or political by encouraging open, honest and respectful communication, she says.
Remote workers should never feel that they cannot complain, yet they often do. "They should be able to say if they feel over-worked, stressed or isolated, so that the problem can be dealt with and resolved," says Bray.
Easy communications, open-door policies and good leadership are key if firms want to keep their remote employees happy and not vulnerable to head-hunters. "The office managers who isolate themselves isolate their teams, and when the team is distance-based any feeling of isolation is particularly dangerous," says Bray.
If team leaders fail to take the right technical and cultural steps, they risk losing their team members to other employers who are better able to manage the needs of the remote worker.
Hints and tips for running a successful dispersed team
This was first published in November 2000