How to phase in remote workers for small businesses

Allowing employees to work from home has benefits for both the worker and the company, but it’s not without risk. Here’s how to do it right.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

Telecommuting, also referred to as working remotely, started a few years ago in a small way but has grown steadily. Having some workers based at home has benefits for both the employee and company if handled correctly.

Home office
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While it seems a simple process to allow some employees to work at home, it's not without complications that can be minimized with proper planning. Setting remote workers up properly is vital to making the program work well.

Benefits of remote workers

Why should a small business allow some staff members to work from home? There are some tangible benefits that make it worthwhile for the company.

Make sure remote workers have the equipment they need to get the job done. You want them to do the same job at home that they'd do in the office, so equip them accordingly.

Working at home appeals to many, and offering this option to candidates can draw top talent to the small business. This is especially the case for those rock stars who've worked from home in the past. Any edge you have to hire good talent is worth the effort.

Allowing employees to work from home can save money, always a concern for small companies. It reduces the amount of expensive office space required, and that's never a bad thing.

Perhaps most importantly, if the remote work program is handled correctly, it often has a positive effect on morale. Remote workers are often happy workers, and that alone can make such a program worth it.

Testing the water

Before plunging headfirst into the remote worker pool, it's prudent to test the waters to make sure it's a good fit for your small business. A little planning goes a long way to ensure your employees are happy and have the support they need.

The small business owner has enough on his/her plate to spend a lot of time to get this right, so it's prudent to run a small test before throwing the switch. Sound out the idea of remote working with the staff, and pick one or two top candidates eager to give it a try.

Even with a small test group, give enough time for the test to iron out all the kinks of the new program, and to properly evaluate if it's working well. Six months to a year is a good length of time to make sure everything is the way it should be.

Make sure remote workers have the equipment they need to get the job done. You want them to do the same job at home that they'd do in the office, so equip them accordingly. This doesn't mean they need a lot of equipment, just the essentials. We'll look at this in detail later in this article.

Don't make the mistake of supplying a home worker with every piece of office equipment they'd have in the office. That's not cost efficient, and most of it will end up sitting idle in the home office.

In the beginning of the remote working test, it may be good to have the workers come into the office one day a week. This will ease them into full-time working at home and help them deal with the isolation that many feel in the beginning. This will also tend to lessen any alienation of the office workers with the coworker otherwise now out of sight.

A good practice to follow with home workers, especially for the test, is to schedule a teleconference weekly between the remote employees and team mates in the office. This should happen on the same day and time each week so it becomes a part of the office work ethic. 

This shrinks the barrier created between workers due to having some in the office and some at home. It reinforces the solidarity teams need to be as effective as possible, and ensures office workers see those working at home as providing an equal part of the effort.

As with any test program, any issues that arise in the home working pilot should be addressed immediately. Such issues may be peculiar to your business, and working with remote workers will help get the program working smoothly if dealt with quickly.

Next: What remote workers need

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What remote workers need

The exact equipment needed by the home worker will depend on the business, but most workers will need a good computer. It might be a good idea to assign a decent laptop, since the home worker will be more mobile than one in the office. This can be augmented by a second monitor if the work will benefit from more display real estate.

Coffee shop
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Make sure your remote workers have a good ergonomic setup as this will head off potential healthcare expenses down the road. A decent desk chair can go a long way to achieve this.

The company should arrange the fastest connectivity available for each home worker, and pay for it

Even more than workers in the office, those working at home need a good phone, smartphone or other, to tackle office functions. A good headset is mandatory to make sure business calls are handled professionally, as they will deal with background noises common in the home.

If your business results in a lot of printed output, put a printer in all home offices. If printed material is not a common output, you can skip this expense. Remote workers can easily print the odd document in Kinko's or wait until they are visiting the office.

The most important thing a home worker needs is a good web connection. The company should arrange the fastest connectivity available for each home worker, and pay for it. Wireless broadband can be used for redundancy for those times the regular provider is out of commission.

This connectivity will be essential to allow the company to keep in touch with remote workers. This is especially true for video conference calls, something that should be occurring regularly.

Managers in the office supervising those working at home should regularly call them to reinforce they are part of the team at all times. This keeps the relationship professional, the mark of a good manager.

In the beginning of the home working test, outline and share clear objectives for each employee. Good companies do this with all employees, and it's extremely important for those working out of the office.

It is easy for the relationship between workers and supervisors to fall off the radar when the former is seldom seen. Having clear objectives up front ensures the employee knows what is expected at all times.

This is a good opportunity to lay down some rules for the home worker. While many home workers (the author included) like to work in public venues occasionally, some businesses may not find this acceptable. If you insist on the remote worker always doing so in the home office, say so up front.

Next: It can work for many small businesses

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It can work for many small businesses

Allowing employees to work from home is something that many businesses can do if approached correctly. Having happy workers can provide benefits to the business, including cost savings.

Remote working benefit
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It is important not to jump helter-skelter into the new world of having remote workers without seeing how it will work. A proper evaluation on a small scale is just the ticket for gauging how well it might work for the company.

The keys to have a productive employee working at home are to set them up properly, define expectations clearly, and to treat them like those working in the office. They may be out of sight but they can never be out of mind.

Working at home requires good discipline to do the job properly. There are a lot of distractions in the average home and they cannot be allowed to intrude on the task at hand. Keep this in mind when sending employees home to work, as some won't be able to handle it. The test of the program as outlined will help managers identify those who can't cut it. It's important to bring those workers back to the office quickly, as the situation will only get worse over time.

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