July 29th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Not Just Pajama Parties: Making Remote Working Work

filed under Office Politics

iStock_000000157050XSmallBy Elizabeth Harrin (London)

“People would love to work in their pajamas, on their own schedule and get around the consistency of 9-5,” says James Sinclair, CEO of OnSite Consulting, a U.S. based consulting company that focuses on insolvency, distress, and concept repositioning, with a mission to help remote workers be more productive. “However, remote or flex working is wholly dependent on the employee and their ability to work in a quasi-autonomous environment and use it to their advantage. If it is about working just enough to get by then it won’t work.”

Sinclair’s assessment is common to many employers: flexible working including the option of working from home is a leap of faith. However, OnSite Consulting has made it work – and in fact, from the company’s inception, its founder decided against bricks-and-mortar and created a remote workforce instead. Sinclair is clear that a remote workforce can generate a return on investment. The remote workforce model saves his company $1million a year in overheads. “For me, only with the advent of group collaboration tools, cloud based document storage and VOIP can I actually ensure that my employees are completing their work and I am constantly managing my workforce,” he says.

Sinclair judges his teams on their results, not hours spent at their desks, and this is a major change in thinking for many organisations. “For some employees, they love this approach and can speak openly about when they are unavailable because their confidence in their position and their completion of assignments speaks for itself,” Sinclair explains. He adds that even if employees are tied to their desks there is the expectation that they will carry out some personal tasks like paying bills during work time – simply because they are at work during business hours. “Remote working has allowed open discussion regarding personal time and what is expected,” he says.

Building an ROI case for remote working

According to a recent survey from Microsoft, remote-working programs can benefit employees and employers through increased productivity, reduced overheads and happier workers. Sixty percent of respondents, for example, said they are actually more productive and efficient when working remotely, as there are fewer interruptions and less time spent on the daily commute. There are cost savings from travel, office space and utilities. The talent pool is widened as you can recruit from a larger area, and providing flexible working options can help retain high fliers. Employees are less stressed and they get more done in the day. So it should be straightforward to build a business case that supports the idea of flexible working. Why aren’t more companies doing it?

Even if your company has an established flexible or remote working policy, chances are you feel that your company (or your boss) isn’t truly behind it. Only 15 percent of people feel that their company really supports flexible working arrangements. We’re constrained to our desks by the perception that our career prospects are worse the less time we spend in the office. While we might not talk openly about it, the lack of support for remote working is a major source of simmering conflict between employers and employees.

Create a policy

Rieva Lesonsky, president of GrowBiz Media, believes that to get over this hurdle the most important thing is for companies to support remote workers. A corporate policy on remote work is the first step, and not having a policy is asking for trouble. “Employees don’t know what they can and cannot do, and different managers may have different rules of their own,” she says. “They may work from home on Wednesday and come in Thursday to find it’s no longer allowed.”

Without a clear set of guidelines, employees don’t know if their career will suffer in some unseen way, and Lesonsky believes that this is one of the main reasons that employees choose not to work remotely, even if their company gives them a laptop and the technology to do so. “By codifying the terms of remote work, you’re actually empowering people to work remotely,” she says. “They won’t have to worry about potential repercussions, because it’s just company policy.”

Once you have a policy, relaunch your flexible working program with the firm backing of those at the top of the organisation, as well as the support of line managers further down the chain.

Get management on-side

“The principles of ‘getting on the boss’s radar’ can be seen in so many of the clients we visit and people are so confused on what loyalty and hours worked actually translate into,” says Sinclair. “All too often we see staff staying late to prove how indispensable they are because they have this belief that by being seen by the boss equates to performance which in turn equates to job security or opportunity for growth. The reality is that loyalty and hours worked are not the benchmarks a company should set when determining job security or growth. Instead it should all come down to performance.”

Choosing the right managers to support employees working remotely is key to them feeling supported and confident with their working set up – and for generating that all important return on investment.

“There’s a certain type of manager that gets sweaty palms at the thought of not being able to see their workforce,” says Christine Durst, author of The Two-Second Commute. “You should look for individuals who have a positive attitude toward telework and excellent communication skills. They should be results-driven and have superior delegation skills. And of course, they should show the willingness to be open to new ideas and change.”

Don’t forget meeting face-to-face

There is no substitute for meeting face-to-face on occasion, and the companies with successful remote-working practices make sure they meet up with their remote workers on a regular basis. “You want to make sure everyone comes together as frequently as possible and not only discusses work but gets that time to maintain and build relationships with their coworkers,” Lesonsky says.

Strong relationships and a deep corporate network also contribute to the return on investment – meeting up in person not only shows the remote employee that she is not alone, but also means that when she needs input from a colleague she has the contacts in place to get things done quickly and efficiently. What employer doesn’t want that?

6 comments

  1. Elaine Heyworth

    For me working from home is really difficult. I get distracted by children, housework and domestic chores, despite the fact that my husband does all the housework and childcaring for us. Coming into the office allows me put on my “working” hat, and concentrate on the job at hand. I love mingling with co-workers, discussing what’s going on, sharing information about the business, and generally enhancing the culture of the company by being around. I don’t feel I need to be visible to my boss to be noticed – I just like to have “a place to work” as opposed to a place to be with my family. I don’t consider it healthy to have a work/life balance all in the same room.

    I have no problem at all allowing my team members to work from home if that is what they prefer, and always support them in taking up that option. For me, delegation has never been a problem, and performance management is what it’s all about. I don’t need to see them every day to know whether they’re working hard enough – as long as I get the results I need, I’m happy with how they’re achieved.

    However, it doesn’t work for me – I like to be able to close the working door when I reach my front door!

    Just a thought from the other side of the argument.

  2. Holly - The Work at Home Woman

    I love working from home! But if definitely takes a certain type of personality. You really need to be self-motivated, organized and flexible. You must also have excellent communication skills and be able to easily deal with distractions. Knowing what type of personality you have before hand can really make a difference between work at home success and failure.

  3. ChristineBrownQuinn

    I recently set up my own consultancy business in my home after more than 20 years in banking. What a shock! I do miss the day-to-day camaraderie, but enjoy the ability to focus on one task for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Being disciplined and creating your own structure within a home office is critical as is staying in touch (including some face time) with your key clients and co-workers.

  4. Marisol

    I enjoy working from home because it allows me to organize my thoughts and prioritize my projects. I agree, it does require discipline and a dedicated space or office to keep the “toolbox.” It is also important to set a working schedule and deadlines. I guess, the main advantage is that you minimize the interruptions and the office politics.

    It works for me.

  5. Can you wait 58 years to earn the same as your male colleagues? | A Girl's Guide to Project Management

    [...] Why is flexible working important?  Because it gives women (and men) the chance to mould their working day to fit around the rest of their lives.  Granted, it won’t work for all companies, or all project managers, especially those who need to be on a building site or with clients at certain times.  But a lot of project management can be done from anywhere.  It’s not that difficult to make it work. [...]

  6. Elizabeth

    Elaine, Holly, Christine, Marisol, thank you so much for your comments on this issue. I think you’ve all summed it up – what works for one person doesn’t work for another. If flexible working is available, some people may take it up and others will find it doesn’t work for them. But having the option to discover what is your preference is the main thing, in my opinion.