Telecommuting is easy with Google Apps

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer recently made waves announcing there would be no more telecommuting at the tech giant.  eWeek quipped that telecommuting solutions vendors were happy to offer options.  It's common sense that the ability for a company to manage workers across geographic space and time certainly does help attract and retain the right candidates from a broader geographic area.  Studies show telecommuting works.  There are lots of benefits to both the company and the employee in a telecommuting arrangement, so we wanted to focus on the pre-requisites for success according to those who've done it.  For this article, we sat down with eQuality Technology founder and CEO Greg Rundlett to get his insights on what factors allow a company to be successful with telecommuting workers.

eQT: Mr Rundlett, you've managed teams that span several timezones and witnessed working telecommute environments at many organizations.  Can you tell us what makes a successful telecommuting arrangement?

GSR: There are three simple ingredients to a good telecommute arrangement:

  1. Home office / Network
  2. Collaboration Tools
  3. Employee

We focus first on the physical environment.  We consider the remote employee to be running a satellite office.  We want to make sure that office is well equipped to handle the work and look at it from every perspective such as ergonomically, and from an IT perspective.  Of course you need reliable broadband Internet access.  Is there a comfortable and quiet separate office space?  Is there a good desk and chair where the employee can work for 40+ hours per week?  You can't do that from a kitchen table or makeshift workspace.  Does the employee have the right equipment to handle their work -- not just a computer, but other equipment such as a copier/printer/fax and telephone?  How about a battery backup for a computer, or do they work using a laptop with a built-in battery?  Do they have supplies: company stationary, product literature etc.  The work environment is probably the easiest thing to overlook as a success factor.  For companies who can minimize dedicated floor space for remote workers there is an obvious financial incentive to invest some of that savings in providing a satelite office environment.  For companies that maintain corporate office space, there are still benefits such as disaster readiness, lower carbon footprint, lower traffic congestion, productivity and worker safety through storms and bad weather 365 days/year.  Employees are generally very willing to take financial responsibility for furnishing their home office, even when it means meeting company standards.

Then we want to make sure the employee has the right collaboration tools and environment that will allow the satellite office function like it was physically in the same space as other members of the company.  This was traditionally done using problematic Virtual Private Networking (VPN) systems and included a number of software complications.  For many years now, web and cloud-based solutions have really opened up the opportunities for small businesses, their staff, and customers to collaborate virtually.  Systems like Google Apps For Your Domain (GAFYD) and providers such as Dropbox allow a company to easily roll out office productivity, email, calendaring, and document sharing to anyone with an internet connection.  Our technical staff (e.g. developers and systems administrators) are adept at the open source development methodology, so they use additional collaboration environments such as issue tracking, version control and IRC chat.  They are the ones who are most fluent in using collaboration tools.  The biggest change over the past few years aside from the improvements to the office suite are the improvements to video calling.  I can remember when we had to dedicate expensive equipment, and bandwidth to setup a teleconference.  Now anyone can do a video conference call with (Microsoft) Skype or Google Hangouts.  And the platforms for doing webinars, although not perfect, have also improved.

Last on the list of success factors is the employee themselves.  A barber will never be able to telecommute.  But assuming the work can be done on a computer and/or telephone, then you want to know if the person is the kind of person who has the dedication, work ethic, and maturity to work independently.  For me, that comes down to hiring the right people.  Still, some people will readily admit that they don't want the isolation and independence of working remotely.  So, you have to be sure that there is a mutual understanding between employer and employees about their work role and environment.  Most people today want the flexibility.  Most can demonstrate the maturity or are glad to proove it.  So, if everything else is lined up, then your telecommute arrangement should be a solid contributor to the company bottom line and the employee longevity, satisfaction and productivity.

It's been said that you don't want to live too close to work, or you'll never leave work.  Today, we're always connected.  To be able to work in that environment means having an employer who knows how to harness the web infrastructure to create a more virtual workplace.