About 28 million American workers do at least part of their jobs from home offices, telework centers, or other remote locations, according to a recent survey by the International Telework Association and Council. That translates into one in five adult workers telecommuting for normal business activities. It also translates into an increasing amount of responsibility for IT managers who must keep track of all those telecommuters. Given those formidable numbers, how can IT managers stay on top of teleworker productivity and company profitability?

Challenge No. 1: Managing remote workers
Managing remote technology is tricky, but managing remote workers may be even trickier. Telework tends to amplify pre-existing organizational weaknesses, said Michael Dziak, author of Telecommuting Success and president of the consulting firm InteleWorks. So if the organization already has a weak management policy, the policy should be updated before teleworking begins. “Telework forces managers to sharpen their basic skills, including measuring performance by results, effective interpersonal communications, mastery of electronic tools, leadership and team building,” he said. “Creating an effective telework environment requires a blending of soft skills with modern management techniques, plus a telework-influenced framework.”

Dziak provided some tips for IT managers on how to create an effective telework environment:

Identify tasks suitable for remote work: It might be easier to make a list of positions that are not suitable for telework than a list of those that are suitable. The key to successful telework is identifying those tasks that can be performed remotely.

Establish the ground rules: The only way telework relationships will be successful is if all participants use the same rulebook. Your company’s Telework Policy and Procedures should be made available to teleworkers and managers.

Be prepared to enforce the policy: Each time a question comes up about a telework policy, the manager or teleworker should be able to find a guideline in the policy or procedures manual or be able to make a decision in the spirit of the rules. When the policy inadequately covers an issue, the company should take it as an opportunity to update the policy.

Practice effective meeting management: Meetings are a necessary part of any organizational process. In a telework environment, situations in which coworkers gather and interact become even more important to the effectiveness and cohesiveness of the team. Good meetings don’t just happen—they require preparation, planning, execution, control, and effective follow-up. Smart managers establish a clear set of goals prior to a meeting, increasing the chances that the effort will be successful.

Provide effective support: A teleworker with broken technology tools might as well be signed out. A manager must ensure that the teleworker is prepared with solutions to potential obstacles, contingency options for failed links and equipment, troubleshooting checklists, and a list of contacts for support.

Manage all direct reports by results: “Good managers rarely need major adjustments to their performance evaluation process to accommodate teleworkers,” Dziak said. “If the manager manages by evaluating work output, it actually becomes easier to keep track of teleworkers’ work output and perform evaluations.”

Smart managers break employee work into objectives, projects, tasks, and action items. Assigning, tracking, evaluating, and rewarding work output using these specifics dramatically improves a manager’s knowledge of work activities, consistency in establishing expectations, and ability to objectively determine whether those expectations are being met.

Even in a telecommuting environment, however, the basics are still valuable. Timothy Himes, vice president of network services for Willow CSN, a call center outsourcer whose home-based customer service reps take calls for major corporations, said managers of telecommuters shouldn’t forget tried-and-true techniques: “Provide clear instructions and deadlines, interim checkpoints, and regular feedback. Build in regular progress reports.”

Challenge No. 2: Managing the technology
In addition to finding effective ways to manage teleworkers, IT managers must overcome a host of technical challenges to implement successful remote operations. According to Himes, those challenges include bandwidth-deficient network connections, frequently changing desktop applications, user equipment physically distant from maintenance experts, and limited physical observation.

“IT managers who are responsible for enabling remote work programs need to put solutions in place to facilitate the unique management style and support requirements remote work generates,” said Himes.

Connectivity via Web browser or terminal emulation solutions dramatically reduces remote technical support requirements. In addition, the systems are much more likely to be compatible with multiple operating systems, according to Himes. Companies like InStranet provide applications that use intranets/extranets to facilitate the exchange of information to remote workers and make it easier for them to collaborate across business units and geographies. According to Himes, “This type of software connects the remote workforce to the enterprise by making documents easy to search for and retrieve while structuring workflow, versioning, syndication, and approval rules.

“There is nothing more difficult than trying to control distribution, installation, and activation of an application change across a variety of PC configurations,” he said.

Cindy West, IT manager at INK inc., a public relations firm, manages a large group of home-based PR professionals throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Remote users make up 75 percent of INK’s total staff.

West said their Citrix server provides most of the resources they need. “It allows our teleworkforces to launch applications at the home office without the need for the IT manager to physically install every program on their computer.”

West says personal contact is the key to success, “whether it be a phone call, an e-mail, or an instant message. Don’t let your teleworkers just languish for weeks on end without a little feedback on the technology,” she said. “Technology is personal, and each user may need help in using it. Easier technologies such as our intranet have made it easier for those workers to maintain their connection with the home office as well as monitor what work they are doing.”

West has the ability to view and track remote workers’ usage of the intranet. She uses this tool to see if the worker has full understanding of the intranet and its capabilities. This allows her to address any issues the teleworker may have.

“Feedback from the workers as to the performance of our intranet and the role it plays in their productivity is of primary importance to me as an IT manager. Decisions are based on this feedback,” West said.

With the number of people who telework increasing every day, managers must develop strategies for overseeing the relationships. By implementing the technical and strategic suggestions we’ve described here, you can stay ahead of the game.