Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hiring the Remote Employee

If you hire and manage salespeople, consultants or on-the-road technical people, then you already know how to manage remote employees. Many global companies regularly take advantage of a larger talent pool by hiring mobile employees. In order to compete globally, those companies who have not yet embraced the virtual employee may be missing out on hiring top talent because they haven't set up a virtual work-from-anywhere infrastructure.

Offering a work-from-home option to employees certainly makes your company a much more attractive place to work, but how will you know whether they'll be happy and successful as a remote employee? And, how do you measure productivity if you aren't able to manage, monitor and mentor them in-person? One of the first considerations is how to set and manage everyone's expectations.

One way to know whether there are realistic expectations on both ends depends on the experience of the employer and their employee(s). Have they worked from home before? Are you the kind of manager who needs a lot of face-time or do you feel confident that your employee is 100% invested? Do they have a set up at home that is conducive to the kind focus and production you require of them? Will you need to spend a lot of money on technology or other resources to support connectivity? In the case of a new employee, or one who has never worked from home before, do you offer a trial period to see if it's working? How do you coach them back into the office if it's not working out?

One of the first things to consider is how much travel is required in the role. If your employee is a Senior Sales Executive or Sales Manager, and air travel is less than 50%, then hiring someone locally who can split their time between the physical and virtual office might make sense. If they have a reporting team working primarily in-house, this might become a bit more difficult to justify. If the person would be spending more than 50% of their time on the road, then you might find it easier to budget company money by hiring someone who lives close to your primary client base, or an airport in a major city so that travel expenses are more easily controlled. For the most part, any experienced bag-carrying executive is already accustomed to working from home 100%. The best ones are usually quite adept at not only having consistent virtual connection, but can often plan and schedule their client visits in a way that maximizes their effectiveness and minimizes financial impact to their company, and clients as well.

There are many roles within organizations that are operational or administrative in nature and can be effectively managed by a virtual executive. Though this might require purchasing technology (laptop, Blackberry or iPhone, etc) and software to support their at-home work activities, you may find overall employee productivity does their loyalty. Often times, a dedicated and appreciative employee will actually put in 12-20% more time virtually than their in-office counterparts. One of the reasons is they may feel compelled to be at their desk earlier, they are not dealing with commuting or social distractions that occur during the work day, and they tend to check their emails/voice-mails more often throughout the day and evening. Many will even responding to requests/inquiries and demands of deliverables/requirements late into the evening. Another benefit is they may be a bit harder to recruit by competitors because they know they've got a trusting employer who has given them the flexibility and freedom to make their work-life work for them. This can be even more attractive to the working moms and dads.

Though working from home can be the ideal situation for a busy mom or dad of school-aged kids, giving them the option to spend time in the office can be a nice break from the home and all it's distractions. Knowing whether your employee can balance both may take time to prove out. So monitoring progress and having regular interaction over the phone will help to reinforce your connection to them. It's all too easy to get disconnected from a virtual employee who feels as though their contributions are going unnoticed. Another concern to keep in mind is the sense of isolation that often accompanies working remotely. A highly socialized person may not benefit from a work-from-home situation on a full-time or long-term basis. If you have a long-term employee, you'll be able to figure this out in advance, and discuss the pros/cons of their working from home. It might make sense to work with your new employees full-time in the office for three months or so before offering a work from home scenario. If you feel they may suffer from a lack of regular social interaction, or perhaps their interpersonal skills are weak, they may benefit from being in-house more often to develop these professional skills. Finding a balance between virtual and in-office presence may make more sense for that person down the road.

Your company may consider working-at-home as not so much a right but a privilege offered to longer-term, proven employees whose work can be performed virtually. A company policy on virtual employees may need to be established so as to provide interested parties with guidelines on how this is earned, which positions in the company are qualifying positions, and whether this option is offered after a specific employment period, and code of conduct required to work virtually. If you know you may have a trust issue with an employee, there are a number of tracking/reporting software options designed specifically for measuring productivity of virtual employees. Of course, if you have a trust issue at all, you might want to look at the reasons why first, and then decide whether a virtual situation is even feasible.

Lastly, the virtues of virtual for the global company can also benefit the employer when negotiating an offer to a potential employee. Once you have determined that a virtual employee is best suited for a role, consider the amount of money that person will save in commuting costs, meals, childcare, and tax write-offs (though be careful here as the tax implications for declaring an in-home office varies from state-to-state relative to capital gains, etc), and what they will gain in personal/professional flexibility, lowered stress, and increased family time. These factors can be attractive to a potential employee relative to how they value the overall compensation and benefits package your company offers. Cost of living also varies from state to state, country to country, and can also drive down operational costs and impact compensation without throwing your internal equity off balance.

There's a lot to think about here, but it seems that the pro's outweigh the con's in the virtual vs. physically present employee. Would love to hear comments/feedback on this piece!

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