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Remote control: Managing remote workers


PALM PILOTWith more workers wanting to run their own race rather than the rat race, and with the technology available to enable this to happen, remote working has increased exponentially. But managing employees working outside the office is a real skill for their managers, says Anton Levchuk – and the secret is in the structure.

For an employer, the positive aspects of having remote staff are fairly obvious - saving on desk space, hardware and other resources are just a few examples. More importantly, it can also help a company retain skilled staff, attract new talent or allow the business to gain a physical presence in a location where they don't have an office.

A remote worker isn't necessarily someone who comes into the office once in a blue moon, however. Flexible working, where an employee works remotely some of the time, is also becoming popular. Recent research by telecoms firm Astra suggests that employees could save 55 hours a year – more than two whole days – if they were equipped to work from home just one day a week, so the business benefits are clearly there.

Photo of Anton Levchuk"Remote working can be a lonely business without a proactive manager."

And the government is supporting this trend: provided an employee has worked for a company for 26 weeks continuously, they have a statutory right to ask for a flexible working arrangement if they have a child under six, or if they are a carer.

Following the recent Walsh Review by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the government is proposing to extend this right to parents with children aged up to 16. While it's important to stress that employers do not have to allow flexible working, many now see it as a positive step.

Remote working should be straightforward to arrange. Legally, the employee needs to submit an application to change their working category under the terms of the companies Flexible Working Policy. The employee's contract will be changed prior to the remote working environment being agreed and implemented.

How to make it work

Despite remote working having a very good press – constant tea breaks and lie-ins - it can actually be very stressful and difficult for both employee and employer, unless it is properly structured. Often, the agreement is made without being properly considered.

One of the key problems with remote working is that the role is often poorly defined. Both employer and employee need to agree on how the relationship will work, so that there is no confusion. Being able to work from home or from a remote location does not necessarily mean that an employee can work any hours they like - there needs to be a clearly understood working structure right from the start.

Communication is probably the most important factor in making sure that the relationship between manager and remote worker runs smoothly. Remote working can be a lonely business without a proactive manager; this can lead to confusion and stagnation very quickly – and even a bit of paranoia. But this is not just about communicating successfully during the working day. As a manager, it's important to get a good understanding of the person you are managing. Taking the initiative to talk through the role with them can be really constructive.

"Despite remote working having a very good press – constant tea breaks and lie-ins - it can actually be very stressful and difficult unless it is properly structured."

There are also many people who do not work either from home or in an office. Many employees are road warriors, sales staff who work from their laptop, Smartphone or PDA. This can be even harder to manage in a structured way. This is where it is important for more regular face-to-face meetings - then there is no opportunity to dismiss a scheduled call, or allow scheduled update reports to slip.

Setting goals

Maintaining a clear set of goals, laid out on a daily, weekly or possibly monthly basis is another useful way of maintaining control. Instigating guidelines and targets will help to focus and structure the remote worker's schedule and yours. The main objective is to prevent anyone from feeling that they are 'out of the loop'.

Whether office politics or a nightmare commute persuades someone to work from home, they need to understand that it is not a panacea. During the initial discussions, a broader conversation may be needed, to identify what their personal objective is for working remotely. This can raise some interesting discussion points.

Managers should not shy away from deciding that the individual is not the right character to work away from the office. This can be a difficult discussion, but managers will usually know whether the individual will take the remote working role seriously. Indeed, many remote workers believe that they put in more hours while working at home than they did in the office. However, there are some who will find the draw of the kettle and the remote control too difficult to resist.

Former CEO of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, famously said "management is nothing more than motivating other people". All this advice should work towards the main goal of keeping a remote worker motivated and enthused. Offices may be stuffy, stressful and full of distractions but they can provide energy, focus and inspiration.

Sitting at home with only the cat to talk to and a comedy mug to laugh at does not create the same atmosphere. However, with the right goals and drive most people can be just as productive and effective working from home as their office-based colleagues.

Anton Levchuk is marketing director of Famatech International Corporation, which manufactures remote control software for desktop and server management. Famatech's technologies are designed to enable IT professionals to quickly provide quality remote support, help desk services and network management.


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