Joe Cowan knows a bit about telecommuting.
As the CEO of Epicor, a business software company, he works remotely from his home in Atlanta even though the 4,000-person firm is based in Austin.
He's served as an inspiration for the rest of the workforce, 25% of whom work at home. (Many of the remaining 75% don't come into work every day.) He accepted the role of CEO in 2013, but before that worked remotely from his home for 15 years.
As a CEO, he is breaking from the norm. For lunch, his wife usually brings him a hot meal from the kitchen. His office during the week is located above his three-stall garage. He doesn't believe in big, fancy executive office suites. Yet, there is one thing he insists is critical in business and insists on as a best practice.
Cowan believes strongly in face-to-face meeting with key managers and other employees to give them his full attention, no matter where he works. He says there's no way he could lead such a large company if he didn't have these weekly meetings. It's an interesting paradigm, because Epicor works mostly with other companies who tend to encourage teleworking and have remote offices.
"My folks who are working remotely really learn how to make distance working relationships work," says Cowan. "And that helps when it comes to cultivating relationships with our customers. Most B2B relationships are distance ones. And because that's often how we operate as a business, we know how to build and foster those relationships--with our employees and customers."
The company uses Skype for Business to make sure everyone is connecting. Cowan says face-to-face meetings are important because remote teleworkers often have a sense of isolation. They need to feel as though they have the same immediate connection that employees in the home office have with each other. That's why he encourages them to text message more than email or even use the phone (which often leads to voice mail) because texting usually leads to a sense of being "in the moment" with other workers. With email and phone, there's a sense that the home office employee will get to the message eventually, which just makes the isolation more pronounced and ruins productivity.
There's nothing more immediate than a video call, he says, other than actually visiting someone in person. (Cowan is a member of the United Airlines 5 Million Mile club, which suggests he tends to "fly home" quite often.) His main concern is that everyone in the company can communicate effectively with one another, which is why Epicor is currently installing videoconferencing hardware for every home worker.
"I want every employee to clearly understand what my goals are for the company, and where each individual employee contributes to the success of meeting those goals," he says. "From a very granular standpoint I encourage all of my managers to hold regular video calls with their at-home colleagues."
So far, the strategy is working.
The company had FY 2014 revenue of $995 million compared to $961.7 million for FY 2013. They recently acquired two retail technology companies, ShopVisible and QuantiSense. Maybe all of those face-to-face meetings are starting to pay off.