Locally Outsourcing Employees Requires a Strategy

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 12, 2013
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The Arizona Republic’s recent strategy to move its community reporters out of the office, suggesting they hunker down with company-provided laptops at local coffee shops and fast-food restaurants with free Wi-Fi, is becoming the norm for other employers, according to Kelly Walsh, PHR, a 20-year human resources professional.

In fact, a New Jersey newspaper made a similar move some years ago, Bloomberg News reported, and The Roanoke (Va,) Times closed its traditional office in 2008 and switched to “coffee shop bureaus” that put reporters in closer touch with the communities they served.

“Businesses, particularly those with hurting and evolving business models like newspapers, need to watch spending and get creative about how they will save money,” Walsh said in a news release.

For some employers that means a smaller physical footprint.

Mark Stapp, executive director of the Master of Real Estate Development program at W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (ASU), noted that while there has been a lot of change in how newspapers deliver their product, a similar evolution is happening with all businesses.

“Technology is allowing us to change our business models rapidly,” making it possible for organizations to operate with a smaller footprint, he said. Desks, for example, can be smaller to accommodate more compact computers and laptops. As more people occupy smaller square footage, available parking for employees shrinks.

“That begins to make the building functionally obsolete,” said Stapp, who is active in the Phoenix development community and is the Fred E. Taylor professor in real estate at ASU.

Additionally, changing technology requires a different kind of infrastructure because “you can’t drag enough bandwidth in the [current] building” to accommodate the organization’s needs.

“If you outsource, you also say to people, ‘Go figure out your own infrastructure.’ You [as an organization] don’t have to deal with that problem,” Stapp said. “We’re letting Starbucks provide the necessary infrastructure.”

Making It Work

Walsh recommends that organizations consider inviting employee input before committing to local outsourcing. However, once the decision is made to go that route, she said it’s important to explain the strategy to employees beyond the dollar figure the move represents. “Maybe it saved x much money, which saved them so many jobs. … I think people understand that,” she told HR News.

In addition, “you have to train people how to telework, and you have to train managers [of remote workers],” said the author of the Teeter Totter Conundrum” blog, which appears in The CEO Magazine. “Just floating them out there [with the message that] this is a cost savings for us … that’s going to really doom engagement.”

Strong communication is a cornerstone of a good remote work arrangement so that employees feel that they are part of the company’s mission, Walsh stressed. “They should never be hearing what’s going on at home base through the grapevine.”

Instant messaging is one way to keep remote workers connected with one another and with those working in-house, and supervisors should encourage its use, she said.

It provides those workers with a sense of camaraderie, she pointed out. Otherwise, when told to fend for themselves “they may feel like [they’re] one step out of the door” and turnover can become an issue.

A cultural shift may occur when some workers begin working remotely: In-house employees may perceive teleworkers as having a perk they don’t have, and teleworkers may feel out of touch with what’s happening in the office.

Communication can ease that, Walsh said, by making public what others are working on, celebrating successes and having regular face-to-face meetings with remote workers.

The Gannett-owned Arizona newspaper reportedly is opening an office to use for meetings, according to a blog by an anonymous Gannett reporter. If employees attend meetings via conference calls, though, make sure they have all materials, such as PowerPoint presentations, beforehand.

“[And] if you’re doing something cool, like handing out T-shirts in a meeting, send them one at home” so they feel included, Walsh recommended.

Stapp echoed the importance of occasional in-person time with remote/locally outsourced employees.

“It could be just meeting with colleagues; it could be collaboration space,” he said. “The space needs to be a space to bond … for common interests regarding the company, for collaboration, for socialization.”

Employers should also be mindful of work/life balance of remote workers. When you telework, “there’s nobody around to say to you ‘Go home,’ ” Walsh pointed out.

And an organization shouldn’t assume that once an employee begins teleworking full time, he or she wouldn’t want a promotion that would mean returning to the office.

Action such as what the Arizona Republic took are “going to be occurring more and more as we cut back on office space [and institute] flex schedules,” Walsh said.

“Best-in-class companies are going to make a plan and do this well and in an inclusive way to keep engagement high.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.

Related Articles:

Despite Research Supporting Flexible Work Schedules, Angst Still Exists, SHRM HR Discipline, Employee Relations, October 2013

Is Flex Work Blurring the Boundaries Between Office and Home? HR News, October 2013

Keep Remote Workers from Feeling Left Out, SHRM HR Discipline, Employee Relations, June 2013

Related Resource:

Workplace Flexibility Resource Page, SHRM Benefits Discipline

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