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Conference speaker goes over nuts and bolts for remote work programs
CHICAGO—Do you know exactly how far your telecommuter's seat is from her laptop?
Have you checked whether your workers' compensation policy covers remote employees?
Do you have technology that lets you see your remote workers during meetings?
Do you micromanage a remote worker more than the people who sit beside you, simply because you can't see what the remote worker is doing?
Those are questions that HR departments should address to create a telecommuting program that keeps employees happy and productive, and to convince company leaders that such arrangements are worth the effort, said David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc., at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Talent Management Conference & Exposition.
"If this job market stays where it is right now, remote work is absolutely going to be one of those commodities that will help … your ability to attract and retain talent," said Lewis, whose Norwalk, Conn.-based company does HR outsourcing and consulting.
"If you're not doing it, the guy down the block is."
Pick the Right People
The first key to a successful telecommuting program is to pick the right people to telecommute, Lewis said.
"You want the right people in terms of their maturity level, responsibility, ability to operate independently," he said. "Those who work remotely tend to be hand-picked by the organization. They're usually people in high standing. They were already high performers."
The next step is to create a plan for measuring performance, he said. And that, he explained, means setting concrete goals and deadlines, then letting the telecommuter meet those goals and deadlines in the way that works best for her.
Track progress "effectively, not offensively," he said.
"Give them five things to do and say the deadline is Friday, versus giving them five things to do and" checking on their computer activity every few hours to see how they're coming along, he said. "Avoid that level of paranoia. There's this perception that somebody working remotely somehow isn't working. I would argue there are people in my office working less than people working remotely."
Communication and Office Tools Are Key
There's no getting around it, Lewis said: Remote workers often feel "forgotten" as team members because they're not at the main workplace. That, he said, is because managers lack either the technology or the consistency to ensure telecommuters feel connected to teammates. He confessed that he has sometimes been 10 minutes into a meeting with co-workers before realizing he forgot to call remote workers so they could listen in.
And teleconferencing is no longer adequate for keeping remote workers connected to the main office, he said. Managers should use webcams or other video tools to ensure that telecommuters can see those in the main workplace, and vice versa.
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Make sure the remote worker has the right computer and communications equipment, he said, to ensure there won't be interruptions that might frustrate managers and lead them to conclude that the telecommuter isn't being productive. Assess how reliable Internet connections and cellphone reception are in the region where your telecommuter works. Ensure that the telecommuter's co-workers, clients and customers aren't directed to an office phone that the remote worker doesn't answer.
"If a client calls an employee not realizing they're not at the office phone, it gets confusing and unprofessional," Lewis said.
Consider asking the employee for videos and photos of their workspace, Lewis said, or even having a manager visit the home workplace.
Check Workers' Compensation Policy
This is especially important when it comes to ergonomics. A telecommuter, for instance, who plants his laptop on the kitchen counter and pulls up a low bar stool on which to sit and type may have to reach so high that he starts to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, neck problems or back problems.
Have the telecommuter measure the distance between his laptop surface and his seat, Lewis advised, and to ensure his elbows are bent at 90 degrees when typing. Have the telecommuter acknowledge, in writing, that his workspace is ergonomically safe. Without that acknowledgement, Lewis said, your company could be open to lawsuits or workers' compensation claims.
Moreover, he said, review your workers' compensation insurance and make sure it covers remote employees. Sometimes, these policies don't.
"Your workers' compensation may have a clause that doesn't cover events that happen when a worker is [working] at home," he said. "This is a huge miss. It's why you want to ask about the proper desk height so you can demonstrate that you did everything possible to ensure the [telecommuter] had the right ergonomics at home."
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