Manage Telecommuters Without Losing Your Mind

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

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