Remote control: locking in your teleworkers

In an industry where staff turnover is notoriously high, many companies have found that the key to retaining valued members of...

In an industry where staff turnover is notoriously high, many companies have found that the key to retaining valued members of staff is to offer them the opportunity to work from home. Liz Warren reports

The IT skills shortage means that finding and holding on to the right staff can be a tricky business. A number of companies are turning to teleworking to help them attract suitable candidates without entering into a bidding war over salaries and keep them by offering quality of life benefits.

For example, customer relationship management specialist Intrinsic turned to teleworking when the company needed to boost its workforce from about 30 to 110 in 18 months. Jane Oddy, Intrinsic's HR director, explains that the company realised that people who were attracted to remote working matched the kind of people it was looking for: leading professionals from blue-chip companies who were self-motivated, self-confident, could work on their own initiative and wanted to avoid bureaucracy. Offering the possibility of teleworking would allow the company to recruit those people, while side-stepping issues such as paying golden handshakes and excessive salaries.

For online catalogue software supplier Actinic, teleworking allows the company to source staff from a much wider pool. "The key to success with software development is having the very best people, not just the people you can get within a 20-mile radius of your office," explains Kevin Grumball, Actinic's CEO. "The difference between the best and the worst people is one hundred-fold and teleworking helps us get the pick of those best people."

Actinic also feels teleworking helps it address the issue of spiralling salaries. One of Actinic's developers took a considerable pay cut to join the company from a job in the City because he wanted to live in Tyneside. "He valued lifestyle over cash," explains Grumball. "We pay reasonably competitive salaries but we don't have to pay weighting or big bonuses to attract staff and we've never had to pay relocation expenses."

Teleworking can certainly help you hold on to staff once you have recruited them. Checkmate, which provides systems integration for call centres, uses teleworking partly because it advises its clients on how to use remote working in their businesses, so it needs to practise what it preaches. However, Checkmate's managing director Dominic Gray says it is also an excellent way to improve staff retention in a business requiring relatively niche expertise which can take staff six to 12 months to acquire. "If we lose someone in month nine, that's a tremendous cost to us, so we need a proposition which allows us to recruit talent and keep it," he says.

For example, Checkmate has been able to hold on to staff even when they've moved house because of a partner's work commitments. "Without teleworking, we would have lost them," Gray says. "All our teleworkers are still with us, bar one, and the longest has been with us for nearly five years, in a industry where the typical length of employment is 12 to 18 months."

Grumball reports similar success. In 10 years, Actinic has only lost two staff, while a number of developers have been with the company for seven or eight years. "One of the reasons people don't leave is because they can't get another teleworking job and they don't want to go back to working in an office," he admits.

Oddy says Intrinsic is also experiencing low staff turnover, just 6% compared with an industry average of about 20%.

Business intelligence software supplier SAS Institute definitely sees teleworking as a perk to offer to staff it wants to hold on to. At the moment, it doesn't endorse teleworking as a general rule, but it does consider requests to telework from existing staff whose skills it might otherwise lose. For example, teleworking status and reduced hours were granted to one employee so that he could look after his wife who had become very ill.

Mandy Clisby, SAS's UK HR manager, feels it can be an appropriate way to reward staff who have proved loyal to the company and to retain the skills of women taking career breaks. Clisby also acknowledges that the company occasionally finds its job offers are refused by candidates who don't want to relocate because their partner has a good job and is unwilling to move. "If we'd offered teleworking, we could have addressed those concerns," she says. "If someone has a rare skill and we need them, we have to ask whether they really need to be based in the office."

For instance, the policy of not offering teleworking to new recruits was broken when the company's European headquarters in Germany needed to recruit some English-speaking staff but found it hard to get the right candidates to relocate to Germany, typically because they had young families. "In many ways, it makes sense to let them telework, because they travel a lot and so they would be absent from Germany much of the time anyway," Clisby points out.

Checkmate and Intrinsic have also both found teleworking allows them to recruit skilled staff who might find it impossible to work for the company otherwise. For instance, Checkmate employs a technical author who is also the mother of three young children. Teleworking allows her to split her shifts around their needs. "She was previously working for another company who wouldn't let her telework, so we were able to entice her considerable talents to our company by offering that flexibility," Gray explains.

However, while it might appear easier to recruit people if you offer teleworking because you can pick from a wider pool, Oddy points out that you have to screen them more carefully to ensure they have the right attitude.

As well as being self-confident and self-motivated, she says teleworkers need to be flexible and capable of solving problems. Oddy adds that it's also very important to make it clear to candidates how teleworking works in practice, because it's not always obvious to people from large blue-chip firms. Gray cites a similar checklist of traits which his company looks for when recruiting staff, adding that it is important that people are self-starters with good time-management skills.

Actinic uses psychometric tests to identify whether candidates are suitable for teleworking. "If someone's main social life is office-based, we would be wary of recruiting them," Grumball explains. "We're not afraid to recruit more asocial people for teleworking, although a lot of them actually have very active social lives around where they live." New employees are also put on a six-month probation to see whether they can adjust to working on their own and being measured on output rather than hours.

In fact, Oddy points out, if you are going to make remote working successful for both the company and the individual, you need to place a lot of emphasis on good management practices. That means not only monitoring staff and their work but also ensuring they get assistance and coaching when they are struggling and that appropriate team-building and education mechanisms are put in place.

Tips for managing teleworkers

  • Develop strong induction processes that allow teleworkers to absorb the company culture and find out practical stuff like where resources are and who to ask.

  • Assign new teleworkers a "buddy" in the early days.

  • Develop management controls based on output rather than hours.

  • Make sure managers are alert to any problems teleworkers may be having and offer the coaching and support they need.

  • Be alert to the danger of teleworkers working too much rather than not enough - companies have a duty of care to ensure employees don't make themselves ill.

  • Ensure teleworkers have access to appropriate levels of technical support.

  • Consider using thin client technology to make it easier for support staff to solve technical issues quickly.

  • Make full use technical solutions - such as Web conferencing and online chat forums - which can improve the rapport between geographically dispersed staff.

  • Give teleworkers an online chat forum which excludes directors and senior managers, so that can replicate the "moan around the coffee machine" of a conventional office.

  • Read more on IT jobs and recruitment