Productivity, in the age of telecommuting

Home work: More companies are embracing telecommuting, with positive effects.
By SHONA ST. ANGELO //

Many companies across the country, such as Aetna and Dell, are allowing employees to work remotely.

Employees save money normally spent on gas and transit costs, and save valuable hours normally spent commuting to an office. Telecommuting can also benefit employers, who can take advantage of savings from decreased occupancy costs and travel-expense reimbursements. Money saved can then be spent on customer acquisition and marketing, which will ultimately yield higher profits.

One of the biggest employer benefits of a remote working environment is the ability to expand the employee talent pool. By expanding their recruitment efforts beyond a confined radius surrounding a physical office, companies are more likely to attract a diverse and talented workforce.

And companies with an expanded workforce are better able to serve clients and customers in diverse locations – for instance, employees can be located in a time zone convenient for communicating with and otherwise meeting the needs of local customers.

One of the major misconceptions about telecommuting is that employees who are not physically supervised will start to slack off. Contrary to this belief, telecommuting can lead to increased productivity and reduced turnover – whereas lost productivity and turnover can cost a company thousands of dollars, due to the price of acquiring and training replacements.

Employees who are unhappy with their commutes are more likely to call in sick or look for a more flexible position. Employees who work remotely and are allowed flexible hours tend to have increased efficiency. A better work-life balance leads to increased employee morale, which leads to the employee feeling more invested in the company, which results in higher work ethic and productivity.

Supervising teleworkers is more similar to on-site management than one might think. However, there are a few keys to ensure proper management of employees who are not physically present.

Shona St. Angelo: Making it telework for everyone involved.

Hiring the right people: Remote employees should be able to work independently, without the need to be micromanaged. Teleworkers need to be positive and self-motivated. Companies should avoid hiring people who consistently need assistance to complete a task, and those who lack strong communication and listening skills. Employees who can grasp instructions and effectively communicate will prove to be valuable members of a remote workforce.

Embracing new communications technologies: Email is not the only way to communicate with an off-site employee. In fact, communicating via email is the most vulnerable to being misinterpreted, since context from tone-of-voice, body language and facial expressions is absent. Emails should be reserved for objective discussions and task-based communication. Chat applications like Google Hangouts, which are more efficient than emails, should be used to share news and updates throughout the work day. And in-depth, lengthy or sensitive meetings should be conducted via video conferencing; if the conversation involves constructive criticism or bad news, a face-to-face element is vital. It’s all about avoiding misinterpretations – an inherent risk to communicating via emails and chat apps.

Setting expectations: Maintaining a structured remote working environment is critical. Measurable goals and specific expectations should be set for each employee and clearly communicated, including target accomplishments for the next week, long-term target accomplishments (one to three months), specific tasks and responsibilities, proper chain of contact for specific issues, required hours and availability of both manager and employee.

Progress tracking: In order for an employee’s performance to be evaluated, it must be appropriately tracked. Some methods may prove more efficient than others. Many managers require that remote employees send daily emails updating their accomplishments and status; this process can be automated through use of applications like Wunderlist, which acts as a cloud-based electronic to-do list and can be shared and edited amongst various co-workers. Completed tasks are tracked and new tasks can be added at any time. Additionally, notes and files associated with a specific task can be shared and uploaded directly within the application. Using an application like Wunderlist can lead to an efficient and well-managed remote workforce.

Measure and compare: Companies should measure how much time is spent on each task by an employee at least once a month. The data can be used to compare productivity of individuals and can also be used to analyze remote employees’ performance versus those working in the office.

Telecommuting has the ability to strengthen a company financially and create a more invested, efficient and happy workforce. Companies are embracing the trend, offering the flexibility to work from home either full-time or when needed.

It’s changing the way we work, especially in industries that rely on sales. For employees and employers, a remote working environment may be the difference between an enjoyable and stressful work life.

Ms. St. Angelo is a senior accountant at Bohemia-based accounting firm Cerini & Associates LLP.