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Ben Seidel, president and founder of Igniting Business, wanted to open the company’s second office in Lee’s Summit in 2014 to better serve their clients in that area. So he became his company’s first remote worker.
During this time, he says, communication between himself and the Columbia office was the priority. Making sure he had access to all the necessary files, communicating on project updates with his team, synchronizing files so that he could still collaborate on a project with a team member in Columbia — being a web marketing and IT company probably made the process a little smoother.
“Overall, the experience was pretty streamlined because we already had [a lot of the technology in place],” Seidel says.
Igniting Business helps other companies overcome the same technical challenges. A client of theirs just recently established their first remote employee, and Igniting Business provided all the technology expertise needed to make it a smooth transition. But the right technology infrastructure is just one part of the plans necessary to fulfill an ever-growing desire from the workforce.
According to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report, 37 percent of employees say they would change jobs for an opportunity to work where they want at least part of the time. It also indicated that 43 percent of employees work away from their team members at least some of the time, up from 39 percent in 2012.
“If you have an employee that needs to relocate for some reason and they’re a great employee, now technology has allowed us to potentially keep those employees or businesses to keep those employees because they could potentially work remotely,” Seidel says. “It’s changing how we really look at employment.”
By creating strong policies and procedures, allowing employees to work remotely can be a beneficial arrangement for everyone. But, as with any new endeavor, a plan is critical.
When deciding if remote work is something that can work for your business, consider specific factors — like your industry, Seidel says. If your employees handle sensitive financial or medical information, perhaps remote work could be security risk. Also consider how you want to grow your company. Are all your future clients hyperlocal? If so, putting the policies and infrastructure in place for remote work might not be the best use of company time and energy.
Asking yourself these questions can help you decide whether you can build an internal system that will keep remote workers engaged and productive.
At True Media, the marketing agency headquartered on Business Loop 70, remote work is a benefit that’s earned, says Stephanie Padgett, senior vice president of client strategy. Employees must first learn the culture and processes in the office. “We find that allows people to make those connections that they need, understand how we work, and when they move to a remote operation, those are already built,” Padgett says.
Some employees who’ve earned the benefit are looking to save on commute times a few days per week, (True Media’s St. Louis office moved and the commute increased for some because of it); others moved to another city for a spouse’s job. Enacting remote work opportunities has improved retention with valued employees at True Media.
“The concept of keeping employees who otherwise would have said, ‘Sorry, I have to move out of town’ — the expense of replacing that person, having that knowledge walk out the door, would far, far exceed the investment we’re making to keep them connected,” Padgett says.
As more True Media employees asked to work remotely, Padgett says the company realized it would have to evolve past what had been an informal agreement between employee and supervisor to a formal program that sets communication standards and measures performance across the company.
Padgett says many people aren’t looking for full-time remote work but rather flexibility and opportunities to work remotely when needed — the opportunity to travel with a spouse for their work conference or to care for a family member who’s recovering from surgery in another city.
True Media has also focused on measuring performance based on outcomes and meeting deadlines, not the number of hours an employee sits in front of the computer.
“If you’re a traditional media buyer and I know that you have six buys to complete, are those six buys completed and turned in on time and on budget and to the specifications? Instead of focusing on whether you’re here from 8 to 5 p.m.,” Padgett says, “I’m focusing on whether you meet those deadlines.”
Once an employee is set up for success working remotely, Padgett suggests testing the waters before diving in. Let the employee try remote work for a week or a month. Maybe start out with two days a week instead of five. That allows you to measure their performance outcomes, and it gives them a chance to try remote work without committing to it. It’s not for everyone — it can be isolating or demotivating for some.
True Media pays for three or four trips back to the office a year for training or the company retreat, ensuring remote employees stays connected and engaged.
And often remote workers are willing to give more hours to the job, Padgett says, which is not something they’re asked to do. Remote work cuts down on stressful time sitting in traffic and makes the time spent working more efficient, with less water cooler talk.
It’s worth noting that while Seidel does not have remote workers, his company is split into two offices, and projects are often managed by people in both offices. Making technological decisions upfront and investing in good tech can make or break a remote work experience.
For instance, having a cloud-based phone allows Seidel to call a client from the Columbia office number or the Kansas City office number regardless of where he is. That can really help with continuity when utilizing a remote worker who might live in a different state — if she can utilize her work phone number from anywhere, she’ll never miss a call from a client.
There are lots of factors to consider when deciding whether to employ remote workers, Seidel says, from finances to marketing to operations. But from the technology standpoint, it’s all about logistics. Questions to ask include: What access do they need to files? How will they handle internal and external meetings? How will they meet with clients? How are projects managed?
Remote workers don’t have the ability to walk down the hall to ask a question, but Seidel says employing communication tools that mimic the in-person experience can help. Video programs like Skype or Microsoft Link can facilitate meetings, and instant messaging programs like Slack can help replace some office chatter.
“We’re able to instantly be in screen sharing, collaborating on files, jumping into video conferences, and meeting face to face if necessary too,” Seidel says.
But the first, most important thing you can do is establish a strong, reliable internet connection for that person who might be working from a home office.
“Internet has become so important for connectivity — it’s a utility, essentially,” Seidel says. “It’s right up there with power to keep your lights on.”
True Media is working through these questions now, Padgett says, standardizing IT for all remote employees. Who’s responsible for troubleshooting an offsite computer? Who replaces print cartridges for a remote worker?
True Media has also changed its stance on meetings. They created an intranet information system to send information like policy changes, client updates, and event information out to each employee. The information is also shared on TVs around the offices. It cuts down on required meetings, which are challenging enough for a company with five locations.
True Media also uses video conferencing to keep remote workers connected to the team — video requires eye contact and cuts down on distractions. (Plus, seeing the smiling faces of co-workers keeps you engaged.) Whatever methods you choose, put out a formal technical plan so that when an employee’s internet goes down during crunch time, you already know who’s responsible for fixing it.
And then think bigger. Once you’ve established the infrastructure to work from anywhere, how can you leverage it to get more clients in different parts of the country? Employing a remote worker can be the tip of the iceberg for a company with a vision for expansion.
“The internet and the ability to use the cloud to provide collaboration has enabled us to work from anywhere and establish two offices, but beyond that, having that connectivity has enabled us to work with clients from Juneau, Alaska to San Diego, California,” Seidel says.
So if you think remote work might be a fit for your employees, tell them to go forth and conquer.