Enterprise Software

Can telecommuting work?

With gas prices at record highs, telecommuting is being attempted again and again by companies across the country and around the globe. But is it something that small and mid-size enterprises should attempt? Here are some thoughts.

With gas prices at record highs, telecommuting is being attempted again and again by companies across the country and around the globe. But is it something that small and mid-size enterprises should attempt? Here are some thoughts.

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Over the years, I've tried to make telecommuting work at various companies. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but given the average commute of employees and the price of gasoline, I'm looking at it again.

Greg Brendel, VP of sales at V-Soft, an IT recruiting and outsourcing partner said, "We are seeing a rise in companies looking for workers that can work from home." He specifically referred to database administration work being done remotely.

Where I have seen this work is within the call center. With virtualization technologies combined with Voice over IP technologies, it's even easier. I am more familiar with the Cisco and Avaya products, so take this bias into consideration while you read.

Basically, the need these days for a full contact center is limited. With the call manager systems that leverage intelligent call distribution, an employee can work from home. Basically, the call gets routed to the employee's phone and the home computer can access via Virtual Private Network a virtual desktop with all of the screens and tools needed by that employee.

Additionally, the big metrics screens you see in call centers that tell customer service representatives (CSR) how many calls are in the queue, how many have dropped, average wait time and average call duration, can all be pushed to the live virtual desktop of remote CSR's. Some of the major concerns are:

  • Truly knowing that the employee is actually working
  • Performing employee training and evaluation remotely
  • Maintaining a quality product at peak times as well as off-peak
  • Being able to actively participate in meetings

The interesting thing in call centers is that a lot of these concerns have been addressed. Training and evaluation tools such as NICE record interactions between CSRs and customers that can be evaluated by a supervisor. Just In Time (JIT) training can be conducted to address weaknesses in the interactions. Additionally, call centers are largely statistics driven. Remote workers can be paid by number of quality calls handled. Many call centers have reported having a better quality CSR employed. Typically, these are well-educated stay-at-home moms or folks looking for a little extra income.

The challenge still lies with the knowledge worker, and worse, the knowledge worker within an SME.  The demands on IT leaders to be on site to address the hundreds of questions or address the numerous fires at a company require for certain IT job functions to be on site. But if you can eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of break/fix work that needs to be done, IT can work from home.

If we take a page out of the outsourcing handbook, having significant, but appropriate management and monitoring tools, many functions can be performed remotely.  At a previous company, I centralized the IT organization so that support can be done remotely. Additionally, I outsourced much of the break/fix work to our PC provider leveraging the three-year warranties we purchased with each computer. Our resources would have to travel to other locations for new project work, but once we set the technologies up, we made sure that the tools were in place to remotely address issues. Remote access to PC desktops, SNMP tools to diagnose and address networking issues and robust VPN solutions to allow access to critical servers at a remote data center.

One of the keys to allowing developers to work from home is robust project management and business analyst resources. Much like off-shore development, bridging the communication gap and focusing on planning and design are key.

There are ways to quantify the work performed by knowledge workers but they all tend to be big brother-ish. The best approaches are to leverage project management best practices with tight milestones and strict adherence to deadlines and hire knowledge workers with a good work ethic. Collaborative tools like instant messaging and Microsoft SharePoint help better facilitate the office water cooler effect and idea exchange. New video conferencing technology such as Cisco Telepresence is supposed to address the utilization and quality issues seen back in the early 90's. Although these systems may be somewhat cost-prohibitive, the trend looks to be pretty solid thus far. If you haven't seen these Telepresence setups, they are truly creepy with regards to how real the interactions tend to be. After a while you get the distinct impression that the person on the other end of the video conference is actually just across the table from you.

So everything appears to be there from a technology standpoint and from a process management standpoint. The upside benefits are huge. You can hire an excellent work force without having to re-locate employees. You save on travel costs by hosting virtual meetings. You improve your employee quality of life by providing a better work/life balance (i.e., eliminating the commute). It all sounds like it will work. Doesn't it?

In the SME space I see two real challenges with the telecommuting experience. First, telecommuting takes a lot of planning and management to pull off successfully. Time to plan and manage, in my experience, has always been at a premium in SMEs. This may be overcome if the financial motivation is there, but it'll be difficult.

The second and most important reason is building a true team. I just don't see the tools yet to facilitate the development of a highly motivated team. There are so many subjective elements to the team building dynamic that it will be very difficult to capture in some business process tool. There is something to actually knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team and then seeing the dynamics kick in when each member of the team automatically compensates for one team member's weakness while simultaneously bolstering another team member's strength. Can that feeling of "we can do no wrong today" be digitized?

What are your thoughts?

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