Once associated with innovative start-ups, telecommuting has become common even for even strait-laced corporations. Communications agencies are especially fond of remote workers, whether they’re full-time employees, contractors or freelancers performing one-off gigs.
While we use the term synonymously, telecommuting and remote work are not exactly the same. Remote work implies that the worker lives outside of the geographic area of the company’s office; telecommuting indicates there might be some on-site work. Work-at-home arrangements, not counting the self-employed, increased 173% since 2005, 11% faster than the rest of the workforce and nearly 47 times faster than the self-employed population, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
Telecommuting: A Win-Win Arrangement
Although telecommuting isn’t for everyone, telecommuters are happier, healthier and more productive, research from Airtasker shows. Its research also reveals that telecommuters work longer hours and work more efficiently than office workers, due to the lack of irrelevant office chatter and intrusive bosses peering over their shoulders.
Employers benefit from increased productivity. PR agencies and corporate PR departments that embrace telecommuting options reduce overhead costs and can tap a broader pool of talent.
“Our clients, which include some of Canada’s top brands, don’t care where we work, as long as we get them results,” says Cathy Cowan, who founded a virtual PR agency in Toronto. In addition, clients pay lower fees since the agency lacks expensive office space.
The downside is that remote workers can feel disconnected, neglected and unappreciated. Keeping tabs on their activities can be challenging. Here’s how managers can overcome those disadvantages.
Give them good tools. Make sure your remote employees have a laptop, tablet or desktop that can help them tackle their tasks. Consider investing in a company-wide software sponsorship program that lets them install important software directly to their personal devices for business use, recommends Jessica Stevens at Glassdoor.
Provide direction. Guide telecommuters with clear instructions and achievable goals. “This is perhaps the most important step for you, as it’s where you’ll be demonstrating your leadership by giving concise, yet clear, instructions which can be carried out even if you’re not present to immediately answer questions,” Stevens advises.
Keep staff accountable. Avoid micromanaging. Telecommuting is productive because of its flexibility. But remote workers can keep management informed with periodic updates on their activities. Some managers recommend that remote staff workers keep records of their activities. “It’s no different than a regular office – you need to make staff accountable for their work by giving them deadlines and holding them to it,” Cowan says. What did they work on? For how many hours? What did they produce (outputs)? What were the results (outcomes)?
Estimate Task Hours. In an hourly assignment, agree at the outset with the remote worker about how many hours the task will require. Ask to be informed if hours are exceeding the estimate with a reason why. Recognize that it’s difficult to estimate hours on creative tasks and be reasonable in paying for extra hours.
Tell them when to stop. While some employers ask off-site employees to keep regular hours, it’s important to tell them to log-off at some point to maintain a work-life balance, Cowan says. If they keep working into the night, burn out becomes more likely. “Sure, every business is going to have its share of late nights, but they should be the exception and not the rule,” she says.
Publicly praise remote workers. Employees who feel unappreciated tend to leave for another job, yet remote workers often go unrecognized. Make sure executives know the names of employees responsible for good work, advises Michael Ferguson, CEO of Rainmakers. A note of thanks will boost morale. The best type of praise comes from high-level executives, the higher the better, and is delivered in a public forum where it can be heard by colleagues, Ferguson writes in Harvard Business Review.
Squash scapegoating. Employees in the company headquarters sometimes blame remote workers for mistakes or problems since they’re not on-site to defend themselves. When someone blames an off-site worker, the manager can interrupt, reveal what’s known, and ask for more information. After mishaps, managers can lay out the facts to the team, review what went wrong, and solicit input.
“There’s no magic tool for making sure your relationships with remote employees are as strong as they can be,” Ferguson says. “Making a good effort requires being equally conscious of them and understanding the challenges they face.”
Communicate with technology tools. Tools like Skype or other video conference call tools enhance communications. Be sure to include remote workers in all staff meetings, even standup meetings or huddles. An instant message program for communications can create a sense of “now” among team members. “Use chat to have side conversations to gain consensus, confirm understanding, or ask questions,” says Erika Weinstein, CEO of eTeam Executive Search. “Ask quick questions through Instant Messenger as a substitute for popping into someone’s cubicle.”
Meet in-person occasionally. In-person meetings build personal connections and trust between team members, improve the team’s efficiency, and counter feelings of loneliness, a common problem for telecommuters. More companies are inviting telecommuters into the office once a week, writes Abdullahi Muhammed, founder and CEO of Oxygenmat, in Forbes. “Visiting” employees tend to be more engaged and fulfilled when compared to their 100% remote or full-office counterparts. They’re more likely to have friendships at work and feel that their job includes opportunities to learn and grow.
Bottom Line: Telecommuters and remote workers offer significant advantages to PR agencies and PR corporate departments, but managing workers outside the office presents challenges. Telecommuting arrangements occasionally fail at some companies, but how the employees are managed rather than the work arrangement itself may be the cause.
This post was first published on Jan. 31, 2018, and updated on Dec. 9, 2019.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.