Manage Telecommuters Without Losing Your Mind

If you could roll out of bed, commute just 40 feet, work in your robe and fuzzy slippers, and save thousands of dollars on travel expenses, would you do it? And, as a business owner or manager, would you offer the same benefit to your employees?

According to a survey commissioned by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), 67 percent of survey respondents said their organization has experienced greater worker productivity as a result of allowing employees to telecommute, either full- or part-time. The main reason for the increase in worker output: less commute time.

No doubt telecommuting offers numerous benefits to employees and employers alike, but with the distractions of home life beckoning, children to drop off at school, a kitchen to clean, and laundry to wash, can a telecommuter be as productive as employees in the office? More important, can technology keep your data secure, your teams connected, and your employees accountable? It can, as long as you plan well.

Plan First

Whether you decide to allow employees to work from home one day a week or all five, the key to implementing a successful telecommuting program lies in developing a well-thought-out plan, says Steve Simmons, vice president of software development at VIPdesk. VIPdesk's outsourced, home-based customer service representatives provide technical support to clients. But with an entirely work-at-home customer-care group, the company needed to implement a failproof telecommuting plan in order for the business to succeed.

Understanding the software and tools that employees use during their day-to-day activities, how often they use them, and any associated security risks involved in allowing company data offsite will inform your overall telecommuting plan. After a review, you might determine that accounting or human resources information should be required to stay in-office only, while sales data could be viewable outside the walls of your headquarters, for example. You should carefully assess such things prior to allowing employees to work offsite, to avoid technical glitches and data leaks.

"Don't do it by the seat of your pants," Simmons advises. "Don't let some sales guy sell you some product that will solve all your problems. One of the things we found is that, a lot of times, vendors will say device X is compatible with that VPN, but that's not always the case. You don't always get a straight story."

Know the Technology Involved

The first technology layer of a secure telecommuting plan is the VPN (virtual private network) that will provide encryption between the employee working at home on their own connection and your office's internal network. VIPdesk uses two-factor authentication for added network security. (One-factor authentication requires only a user name and password, and doesn't offer a high level of security.)

A network access control device, or NAC device, is another important piece to consider. A NAC will query each machine--before it's granted access to the network--to check whether certain software, such as an antivirus utility, is installed. When a user logs in, the NAC can even ensure that the user has a firewall set up and that patches are up-to-date. If the set criteria are not met, that user's computer will not be allowed on the network.

If your company stores credit card information or other data, consider installing a third-party application on company PCs that can disable external USB devices when a user is logged in to your office network via VPN. This arrangement protects your sensitive data and prevents a remote employee from downloading client data. If the software detects the presence of an external USB device, such as a thumb drive, it will terminate the connection. (VIPdesk uses Secure It Easy.)

Keep a Watchful Eye

While you don't necessarily need to watch an employee's every mouse click, it's a good idea to set ground rules and make sure that staffers aren't catching up on Oprah or heading out to a baseball game during work hours.

Brian Diamond, founder of Telecommuting360, a Web site and open forum dedicated to educating people about telecommuting, advises managers to be transparent about watching employees. He notes that most remote office and telecommuting packages have auditing built in. Citrix, for example, offers logging on its XenDesktop product so that a manager can receive a log of an employee's entire day, including chat sessions, e-mail messages sent, and IP-telephony calls.

State laws vary, however, and some require employers to inform employees that they may be monitored, so be sure to check your state's laws before proceeding. Draft a policy stating that the employer may monitor the employee, says Diamond, and have each employee sign it. Then, send out a monthly reminder. If employees know that they may be monitored, Diamond says, it can be good motivation not to slack off.

"If you don't watch what [remote employees] are doing, you see a drop-off in work productivity over time," he warns.

If you don't have a package with auditing, another simple solution is to require that remote employees use instant messaging software so you can see their online status and ping them at any time during the workday.

The open-source and free IM client Pidgin has a feature called "buddy pounce" that allows you to follow a user and be notified the moment they sign on. Some enterprise applications, such as IBM's Lotus SameTime service, offer secure IM, logging, and built-in VoIP.

Finally, watch out for programs such as Auto Reply Manager, which automatically create messages and send replies based on rules that the user has set. If you suspect an employee is using one of these tools, send a very specific message and see what kind of answer you receive.

Manage Meetings and Projects From Afar

Seeing facial expressions and hearing vocal intonation is a much better way to communicate than shooting e-mail back and forth, but if your team is remote, Web conferencing can be almost the same as being there.

Gmail and Skype offer free, secure options, and many instant messaging programs are now starting to incorporate conferencing. But while the grainy video of most Webcams leaves much to be desired, high-resolution video is the next best thing to an in-person meeting. A recent PC World Australia article delves into a few of the latest conferencing products, such as Access Grid's high-resolution video and shared whiteboard.

Though meetings may not always be necessary, dropping by Bob's desk to find out when you'll get his latest sales report might be something you're used to doing when working in an office. Luckily, project-management software such as Microsoft Project or Basecamp makes tracking tasks easy. Project-management software not only lets you see tasks, deadlines, statuses, and expected completion dates but also allows your group to share documents online.

Telecommuting might not be an appropriate arrangement for all offices or all employees, but putting a secure and well-designed telecommuting plan in place may yield a happier, more productive workforce. And there's nothing like holding a board meeting in your pink fuzzy slippers.

Telecommuting Checklist

You have many elements to think about when creating a telecommuting program. Consider including an assessment of the following components in your plan:

Security/Connectivity

  • VPN
  • VoIP
  • NAC
  • Automatic backup and restore
  • Data encryption
  • Software patches
  • Two-factor authentication
  • Firewall
  • Virus and spyware protection
  • "Time-out" function

Collaboration

  • Instant messaging
  • Videoconferencing
  • Collaboration software
  • Document sharing

Subscribe to the Business Brief Newsletter

Comments