When one of Marty Kotis' workers can't come in to work … it's just another day at the office. Over the course of a year a third of the 30 employees of Kotis Properties, Inc. will spend some time working from home or another remote location, says the Greensboro, North Carolina, commercial real estate developer. "It works for me too," adds Kotis, who has telecommuted from as far away as Africa. "If I want to spend two days just about anywhere, I can."
So can a large and growing number of workers. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of businesses that allowed employers to work remotely at least one day a month increased 63 percent, according to a study by WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Arizona, association of human resources professionals. If you include self-employed workers, nearly 29 million people labor remotely at least a day a month, the group says.
Managing telecommuters does present challenges, however. To begin with, before any small business can pursue the practice, it will likely have to overcome resistance from its own managers. Supervisors accustomed to face-to-face contact are often uneasy about the prospect of managing people who aren't in the office, notes WorldatWork spokesperson Marcia Rhodes.
Without management buy-in, telecommuting isn't likely to work. But there are steps you can take to get them on board. "To gain management support, employers should involve managers in every aspect of the teleworking program," Rhodes advises. For instance, ask managers to help decide which employees and positions will be considered for telecommuting.
Get the results of those policy decisions in writing. Have a formal telecommuting policy that spells out who is eligible, how their performance will be measured, what kinds of equipment and technical support the company will provide and how often teleworkers will have to make an appearance in the office. A model policy is the General Service Administration's guidelines for federal teleworkers, Rhodes says. It's available online at www.gsa.gov/telework.
A key part of the policy is deciding which positions will be available for telecommuters. Generally, telework fits jobs that are information-based and predictable, according to WorldatWork. Those that require a lot of concentration and uninterrupted privacy also are often well suited. "The key is to designate jobs with at least a portion of the work that can be done as well, or even better, away from the office," Rhodes says.
When it comes to performance, teleworkers should be judged on results, not how many hours it took, what time of day the work was performed and, of course, where it was done. "Set productivity objectives and measure employees against them, trusting employees to manage their own time," Rhodes recommends.
Finally, train and educate both managers and virtual workers in the time-management and other skills necessary to remain productive away from the office. At home, for instance, distractions may be more numerous or less than at the office, but are sure to be different. Teleworkers need to know how to set up a separate workspace and fend off requests from family or others who may be present. And without supervisors there to urge and assist, Rhodes notes, employees will need to be taught in advance how to act more independently.
Every telecommuting situation is different. Kotis says he handles most potential problems at the hiring stage, when he carefully selects people who are likely to be able to perform well in a less-structured remote environment.
Technology is another important element in his approach. In addition to laptop computers and other standard mobile productivity technology, Kotis employees Web-based scheduling and contact databases so that everyone can have access to the same information from any location. He relies on conference calls to conduct meetings, and wireless e-mail to PDAs, cellular phones and wireless data card-equipped laptops to transfer files and textual material.
While Kotis devotes significant time and technology to making telecommuting work, he considers it a sensible investment. The same techniques and tools that allow for telecommuting, he notes, help employees stay productive when traveling. And employees really like having the flexibility of working from home -- even when home is in the Virgin Islands, where one worker spends two months each year. "It's another benefit you can offer your staff," he says.