Tag Archive: remote_employee

Setting Your Employees Free (to Work): Creative Ways to Foster Your Staff’s Work/Life Balance

Setting Your Employees Free (to Work): Creative Ways to Foster Your Staff’s Work/Life Balance

“I believe that if you provide the right working environment, people enjoy work,” says Colin Earl, CEO of EnterpriseWizard, a web-based business solutions company in Silicon Valley. This attitude—fueled by the desire to avoid the sort of office politics Earl had experienced at a previous job—greatly influenced the United Kingdom native when he founded his company 20 years ago. The result: telecommuting, a relaxed dress code, and free food on-site are regular options for all his employees.

Although traditional business proponents might dismiss some of these choices as soft or unorthodox, Earl views them as necessary to the bottom line. If you offer your workers more flexibility and a better work/life balance, the chances are greater that they will be happier and more productive. In this vein, happy workers translate into healthy profit margins.

For employees with family obligations such as children or ailing relatives, having a work schedule that affords flexibility can be a lifesaver. But like other things in life deemed too good to be true, this goodwill needed to be harnessed correctly by small business owners lest they be abused. Telecommuters who routinely take off hours during the workday to attend to personal matters, or who otherwise fudge the number of hours dedicated to a project, for instance, are not good for the morale of other staffers—or the bottom line.

“The main thing is to make sure that the employee’s self-interest is aligned with the business self-interest and vice versa,” advises Earl. At the same time, he adds that it’s critical for small business owners to create a culture in which employees know that if they blunder, they will be penalized just as they will be rewarded if they do well.

Creating Balance

According to a 2011 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, not having an equitable work/life balance continues to rankle employees. Among the findings, nearly nine in ten working Americans say work/life balance is a problem, and over half—54 percent—called it a “significant” problem. In addition, 43 percent of workers do not think that their employer is doing enough to address work/life balance issues.

To address this issue, businesses are increasingly turning to flexible hours and work from home solutions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 nearly one quarter— 24 percent—of all employed persons did some or all of their work at home. (Men and women were about equally likely to telecommute.) Perhaps not surprisingly, entrepreneurs are leading this trend, as the BLS found that self-employed workers were three times more likely than salaried workers to have worked from home—64 percent vs. 19 percent.

PQ_WorkLifebalance.jpgEmphasize results over hours worked

Erik Huberman, CEO of Swag of the Month, a year-old retail discount company with a staff of eight based in Santa Monica, California, echoes Earl’s sentiments about accommodating workers to improve their work/life balance.

“If you are going to allow for flextime and remote work, make sure work is more about deliverables and specific goals,” he notes. “If you make it an hours thing, it’s easy for employees to get distracted. If they know what is expected of them, they will generally rise to the occasion.”

Cultivate the virtual world

To allow busy staffers to be occasionally off-site to tend to a personal obligation, train them in web-based programs such as Salesforce.com, Quickbooks Online and Google Docs. This will give them the tools to continue working when they’re not on-site and meet project goals without being at their desk or at a sales counter.

For James Sinclair, a principal at OnSite Consulting, a nine-year-old nationwide hospitality consulting firm, giving up office space three years ago and going virtual has been a boon for him and his staff of 65 full- and part-timers. Not only has it drastically lowered overhead costs for Sinclair’s business, but, according to him, it has also increased revenues by having employees in the field at all times.

“The ‘lightbulb’ moment came because I was virtual anyway,” recalls Sinclair. “I spend 200-plus days on the road so I had been virtual for years and been using a hodgepodge of technology to get data access anywhere, be paperless, and stay in touch with project management.” Coincidently, the lease renewal on the company’s office came up for renewal and because clients rarely visited, Sinclair thought the timing was auspicious to make the shift to virtual.

Using Microsoft’s Office 365 technology platform, which aggregates all documents and communications into one hub, Sinclair and his staff now work wherever they are. The end results have been worth it, he says.

“Now staff is managed on goals met and not hours worked or schlepping to the office,” he continues. “The result is that people became more available, more passionate about work, and more thrilled to be working for me and vice versa. My employee efficiency skyrocketed and, above all, I now have an advantage against my competitors. They could lure my staff with more money, but not with the lifestyle I can afford [my employees].”

Think like a maverick

If you’re serious about implementing ways to improve your employee’s work/life balance, then you will need to think creatively. Further, ask yourself how these changes will be both in your company’s and in your employee’s best interests.

“Disregard the norm,” urges Earl. For instance, in his ongoing quest to appeal to both his employees’ and his company’s best interests, Earl says he offers his staff free food.

“People tend to work a little later when they’re not hungry,” he says. “When it’s 5 p.m. and they have a snack they’re more likely to work until 6 p.m. I’ve been to companies where employees had to pay for their own coffee.”

Improving an employee’s work/life balance hinges on how flexible a small business owner is willing to be. Taking the time to be clear with your staff about expectations is key to your success in managing any new work arrangements. Expect a few hiccups in the beginning, but keep in mind that in our world of 24/7 instant communication, allowing flexibility for your employees has never been easier.

If you are thinking of offering telecommuting as a viable option for your employees, check out the following articles for helpful tips.

Remote Control: Smart Ways to Manage a Virtual Office

Remote Control: Smart Ways to Manage a Virtual OfficeBy Erin McDermott.

Once upon a time, small business owners gathered their staff in one location from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They would dial all 10 digits on landline telephones and get charged a hefty price, await the latest batch of tasks once the mail arrived, and sometimes even meet at an actual watercooler to chat.

Remember those old days—you know, the early 1990s?

Today, technology has made it easier than ever to run a small business and manage employees from afar. Inexpensive Web tools, like Skype, GotoMeeting, and FaceTime have broken down the barriers in face-to-face contact, making even a virtual office seem much more, well, real. Laptops, wireless Internet, and smartphones make work possible pretty much from everywhere and every time zone. Adding to the appeal is the fact that telecommuting is favored as an eco-friendly alternative to millions of cars clogging our nation’s overcrowded highways. So how can a smallbusiness owner manage to be a good virtual boss no matter where their employees might be?

“Basically, you are your business,” says Rachel Newmark, who runs a swim school, SafeSplash, out of her home in Northern New Jersey. “As a business owner, your reputation is everything. You always have to be available to customers and staff for anything and everything to ensure that the business runs smoothly,” she explains. And because she partners with two public pools to hold her private lessons, she adds, “I always have my phone on to take calls day and night and have to do on-site monitoring as well. ”

PQ_Manage.jpg“The idea of people working from home watching soap operas and sitting in their pajamas is a myth,” adds Jane Applegate, author of “201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business” and owner of The Applegate Group, a multimedia company that produces content aimed at small businesses. “People who work from home really do work harder now. With the economy, there’s no slacking off. The work has to get done. You can’t underperform.”

It’s an increasingly business-anywhere world that’s getting the work done. At this month’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, an annual networking event for startups and entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, Applegate says she was stunned to see thousands of small business owners perched everywhere, plugged into all available outlets, doing business even while sitting on the floor.

Still, there are some do’s and don’ts that small business owners should pay careful attention to when venturing into the virtual work world:

Look for staff you can trust: “It’s difficult to hire right if you’re hiring people you’re not familiar with, particularly those who have no virtual-organization experience,” says Jeff Zbar, creator of ChiefHomeOfficer.com, a website for home-based entrepreneurs, teleworkers, and the people who manage them. If you’re handling a virtual office, check out reputable sites like eLance, which has a huge bank of online talent, offers web-based monitoring tools, and can handle hiring paperwork for you.

Check references. Many big companies’ managers may be reluctant to talk about a former employee because of legal restraints. Applegate’s workaround: Ask a potential employee for a reference from a colleague or vendor, or a consultant with whom they’ve worked, who should be able to speak freely. “You need to speak to live people,” she says. “You have to set a high bar. Even if they’re working remotely, they still represent your company.”

Put your expectations in writing. Location may be increasingly irrelevant, but you can still set your rules down on paper. “You’ve got to be able to give a little on things like lunch breaks or quick errands, but when it comes to telework, things have to be laid out from the beginning,” Zbar says. Best practices include having everyone check in first thing in the morning, be available on Instant Messaging, and formally sign off at night. Some small business owners set a weekly or even daily conference call. Applegate’s recommendation: Write very detailed memos, which spell out exactly what you want accomplished, and by when.

Start with the short term. Try a few test projects, or go on a weekly or monthly basis to get a sense of how an employee works. Watch their habits, responsiveness, and communication skills, along with participation on conference calls, and get feedback from clients.

Pay attention to the clock. Just because you’re working all hours doesn’t mean everyone else should. Collaborate with your employees to set a schedule that makes sense for your needs and your customers’ needs. “I’m 24/7, but it’s my company,” says Applegate. “Being in a virtual office doesn’t mean employees have to work 24 hours a day.” She says she leaves messages or emails at all hours for her employees, but it’s just the nature of relaying information—not a demand for them to keep up with her.

Be honest about the arrangement. If it’s not working, it could simply be that working from home isn’t meant for some people. “Right or wrong, chemistry is an issue,” says Zbar. “If it’s not working, you have to act on that.” And some managers may not be suited to handle employees at a distance. Having people working out of sight demands a certain amount of trust, and, Zbar adds, “an understanding manager who knows that expectations can be met even if there are issues that pop up for working parents.”

Find a balance. Newmark says she relies on her managers and the training she’s given them to give her some flexibility for other important tasks, such as maintaining the back office, dealing with customers on the phone, organizing work appointments, growing the business, and managing her kids’ busy schedules. She trained as a lawyer and says she left the long hours in the office for a more family-friendly opportunity.

“Every business has its positives and negatives,” says Newmark says, who finds time at all hours to work around her kids’ busy schedules. “The alternative isn’t any easier, but this is the best idea for me., It is all manageable. No matter where you are.”

4 Ways to Get Results From Remote Work Arrangements

Working remotely has become commonplace for businesses of all sizes. According to a recent IDC report, the United States has the highest percentage of mobile workers in its workforce, 119.7 million workers or three-quarters of the workforce expected to be mobile by 2013. Currently, nearly 85 percent of employees work remotely one day a week or more.

Technology has made telecommuting a viable and attractive alternative. Advanced laptops, smartphones, wi-fi, high-speed internet and cloud computing applications enable operations from anywhere at any hour. For small businesses with limited resources, remote arrangements can be particularly attractive. First and foremost, telecommuting could substantially reduce rent, utility and other overhead expenses. Moreover, eliminating aggravating commutes and providing employees with greater flexibility to manage childcare and other commitments enhances work-life balance and improves morale – both critical factors in attracting and keeping talent.

However, while businesses are increasingly embracing this trend, without the right policies and guidelines in place, out-of-office can become out-of-business. In fact, a Microsoft survey of small and medium-sized businesses found that nearly half don’t have official policies to govern the nuances of telecommuting.

When deciding to transition some, or all, of your workers to remote schedules, there are a number of considerations you should keep in mind:

Who is right for the (remote) job – Remote work isn’t necessary the right fit for every employee. When hiring or transitioning workers to remote schedules, jobs skills relevant to the role are only one part of the equation. Being comfortable and effective outside of a conventional workplace and away from a manager and colleagues generally requires someone who is team-oriented, a self-starter and a strong communicator.

Better safe than sorry – Guidelines for using and securing company technology should be updated to reflect the realities of remote work including specifics steps for ensuring that company equipment is protected from damage and loss and that confidential information is not compromised. For example, the policy should include specific standards for encryption, firewalls, virus protection, remote wipes in case of loss/theft, etc. Depending on the nature of your operation, you may want to consider retaining an IT professional to assess whether company data or customer information will be adequately protected on external servers or employees’ personal computers. Out of sight, but not out of mind – A prevailing concern regarding remote arrangements is that without regular supervision and oversight, workers might slack off or be less efficient. However, the key to maintaining performance and productivity high in or out of the office is setting specific expectations and keeping the lines of communication open. You should maintain the same schedule of routine meetings and check-ins as you would with in-office teams and enforce office policies and deadlines. Lead by example by remaining engaged and accessible via phone or email. Finally, there are a number of affordable web-based software programs — Basecamp, Zoho Projects, Liquid Planner, 5pm, and others — that can help add more structure and clarity by enabling you to assign tasks and deadlines and receive updates when milestones are completed.

Staying close-knit while working apart – Clearly, there are cultural advantages to having staff under one roof. Opportunities for in-person collaboration, impromptu brainstorms and social outings build a bond between employees and a connection to the company. However, it is possible to preserve a sense of culture even if the majority of your workforce is remote all or part of the time. Scheduling group events/meetings at regular intervals is one easy idea. Another is using interactive technology like Skype and other video/audio conferencing systems. Unlike traditional conference calls, these tools put remote workers “face to face.” Many also have simultaneous chat features that make it easier for every person on the line to be an active participant in the conversation.