The concept of working remotely is not a new one, but advances in technology and changing perceptions about what constitutes a job, employment, and even work itself are making remote work a more viable option for a growing number of businesses, large and small. “It’s a very interesting time, with businesses integrating virtual environments into their work culture,” says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a job service site for finding flexible employment. She and the company’s 36 team members have been working remotely for several years.
As this trend continues to grow--and workers increasingly are found in more remote environments--businesses need to find ways to enable those workers to collaborate with colleagues, share information, and access programs just as easily from the other side of the world as from the office next door. The idea of remote work is also becoming increasingly diverse, affecting everyone from entry-level staffers to C-level executives. Tremendous advances in remote and mobile technology are partly responsible for this, but businesses are also becoming more aware of the cost benefits remote work arrangements can provide, Sutton Fell says. They include lower overhead, reduced absenteeism, and increased productivity.
Regular telecommuting for employees of U.S. businesses grew by almost 80 percent between 2005 and 2012, a period during which the overall workforce declined by almost 2 percent, according to Global Workplace Analytics, a research firm. The phenomenon of remote work is growing in popularity among many different types of businesses, and the physical distances involved are increasing. “In our company, we have people working anywhere they live. All they need is a reliable broadband connection,” says Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, Inc., a communications consulting firm.
Jason Robbins, CEO of ePromos Promotional Products, Inc., argues that the use of remote workers and offices is not only growing, it’s becoming the norm. “With technology like Skype and Google Hangouts, it’s easier than ever to communicate with remote employees,” he says, pointing out that ePromos is headquartered in New York, has its largest sales center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and has 19 full-timers (out of a total of 120 employees) working in 11 different states. “It works very well for us,” he says. “We have screens set up during company-wide meetings where the teams can see each other. We use Skype to communicate for department meetings, one-to-one’s, and just to collaborate.”
Wireless Internet access and WiFi capability are having a major impact on office environments. “They are truly shaping the way we work and the future of work in that they make it incredibly easy to work from anywhere, any time,” Sutton Fell says. “The limitation of having to be at a desk in a designated office building is now pretty arbitrary in many cases, since much of work is now done independently on computers or by phone or email.”
Of course, data security is a growing concern as work becomes increasingly remote and dependent on online communication. A starting point for many businesses in addressing this challenge is maintaining a private network for employee use along with a public network for use by customers, vendors, and visitors to their facilities. “Information security is often a concern for organizations. Remote workers need to ensure they are keeping both customer and internal business data safe,” says Andrew Kokes, vice president of Sitel, a global customer care provider that has doubled its remote work force during the past year. Computer-based security makes the home working environment as secure as an office environment with capabilities such as virtual desktop and dual authentication, which provide robust security reinforcement, Kokes contends. Sitel also uses other technology solutions such as credit card masking, dial tone distortion, automated compliance, and biometric profiling as additional security measures for remote workers.
Communication is the basis of making sure remote workers contribute value to the business, says Sutton Fell. “This includes having the online tools to communicate, (e.g., internal collaboration boards like Yammer), being on instant messaging (IM), Google Docs, or similar project management tools, email, etc. I believe having regular team meetings is also critical, so we have weekly calls with each of our departments and an all-staff call so everyone can stay on the same page and have the opportunity to interact,” she says.
Another challenge for businesses is replicating the in-office experience for remote workers, an issue that can be particularly important for younger employees who tend to value the social aspects of workplace interaction more highly than older workers do. Sutton Fell spends a lot of time thinking about ways to translate in-office experiences into remote ones. “Friendly conversation at the beginning or end of an email is one of the simplest, most effective approaches because this is typically what happens when you’re on the elevator, by the water cooler, in the parking lot, etc.,” she says. FlexJobs also does things like sending goodie bags to all its remote workers around holiday times to replicate the feel of having a bowl of candy in the snack room or on the reception desk.