While reminiscing over the technology path I veered onto years ago, I realized that the industry’s not exactly where I thought it would be twenty years ago. That’s always the case though isn’t it? In particular, I see small businesses struggling to advance in at least two areas: advancement within the existing structure and telecommuting.

By advancement within the existing structure, I mean promoting and compensating people for the work they actually do and not necessarily, what you hired them to do. What I commonly see in small business is that one person becomes the “jack of all trades” for their company’s technology needs — usually through their own initiative or by necessity. They learn by the seat of their pants, and they become the person everyone calls when there’s a problem.

So, what does management do? Nothing.

That’s just sad, and it shows a lack of insight and integrity on the part of management. If you have one of these enterprising folks in-house, act quick before they’re gone and the daily workflow comes to a screeching halt (some of them are indispensible):

  • Create a new position and title — please don’t forget the title-that acknowledges this person’s IT work.
  • Find out what the going rate for this position is and give this person a raise that befits the work they do.
  • Get this person some professional training. Unless you’re working in a hollow, a cave, or on the top of a glacier, there’s training near by.

Fail to acknowledge this person appropriately and you run the risk that they’ll leave. Eventually (always sooner than you think) this person’s going to realize that you’re exploiting their intelligence, good will, and ingenuity. They will take all those qualities somewhere else — to a company that pays them fairly. Then, try replacing this gem with his or her current salary and title. Go ahead and try!

Reward your current employee for being innovative and responsible. You’ll both benefit.

My next disappointment isn’t as easy to remedy. Ten years ago, I thought telecommuting would be commonplace by now, but it isn’t. What’s standing in the way of progress?

Some large companies allow remote access so employees can work from home or on the road, but they’re still commuting to an office. For them, remote access has only made it easier to work longer hours!

Then, there’s that archaic managerial belief that employees must be seen to be productive. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Both management and employees know the drill. If an employee doesn’t get the job done, you find one who does. Why should remote employees be any different? The work force is growing up — employees don’t need a manager standing behind them to do their jobs.

To be fair, not every position can telecommute, and upgrading systems for remote workers can be costly. Technical support can be awkward. IT has never made a house call to my house. Finally, security issues are real. I hesitate to bring it up, but the events of September 11, 2001 didn’t help. A CNN survey (2005) reported that 66 % of those polled believe terrorist will launch at least one attack against the Internet infrastructure or the US power grid.

While telecommuting isn’t for everyone or every position, I am disappointed that the trend is moving so slowly. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) estimates that 23.5 million employees worked from home during regular business hours, at least one day per month (in 2003). The US Census Bureau reported in 2004 that 4.2 million workers, about 19 %, did some or all of their work at home. That seems like a lot, but it’s half what industry experts predicted in the late 90’s, and it includes the self-employed.

If it’s difficult to relate those numbers to your own business, consider the following example: A general search on Dice.com for a SQL Server developer generated 7,089 positions. Only 36 allow for telecommuting. That’s half a percent folks… half a percent. Of course, ten years ago, telecommuting opportunities were almost nonexistent, so from that perspective, we are advancing. In my opinion, the change is just too slow.

Telecommuting seems like a great way for some small businesses to grow without the traditional expenditures. Square footage, utilities, insurance, and so on for all those cubicles add up. Telecommuting costs are limited (generally) to upgrading your networking system to allow for remote access. However, you might not need an upgrade initially (or at all). You can accomplish a lot using E-mail and FTP sites. Replace face-to-face meetings with teleconferences. In addition, there’s meeting software that does the same thing, without the telephones. I’ve been telecommuting for 10 years now and I seldom require remote access to a client’s systems.

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without adding to the growing hysteria surrounding our increasing fuel costs. This time last year, employees were comfortable commuting an hour or more a day, even with some of that time spent in heavy traffic. As fuel prices rise, employees are going to feel the pinch (the truth is, they already are). Telecommuting, even a few days a week, could make a big difference. I’ll even turn up the hysteria a bit and suggest that if war breaks out in the Middle East, price won’t be the problem — finding gas will be the problem! I would never suggest that you change your organization for a war that might never happen, but it’s something to consider.

After some initial adjustments, telecommuters are as productive, if not more so, than their cube farm counterparts. They’re often happier. You’ll save money and your telecommuting employees will be productive and happy.