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How to keep 'work from home' employees accountable--without spying

We all hear the jokes about employees "working" at home

I've been a part-time, work-from-home employee for years now. And yes, I do work. A lot. Still, I hear whispers from coworkers who wonder if I'm just avoiding a commute to spend quality time with my laundry. And then there are the moms I meet at the park on my day off--the ones who say they love "working from home" (complete with air quotes) because it "gives me so much free time."

They're giving me a bad name. But my bigger concern is whether my boss knows how much work I'm doing.

Working from home. Working remotely. Telecommuting. No matter what you call it, working from anywhere other than your company's office has gotten a bad rap lately. With Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer instituting a ban on the practice, and Best Buy setting strict limits on its work-from-home policy, the news has been negative for both managers and employees who rely on the flexibility that telecommuting can offer.

Telecommuters and the bosses who employ us, take heart. Today, telecommuting is easier than ever, thanks in large part to a host of free and low-cost products that can help keep remote employees productive, accountable, and in touch. Most of the tools are so cost-effective and easy to use that even the smallest of small businesses can rely on them.

Don't buy the badmouthing

Flexible work arrangements have thrived since the advent of high-speed Internet, and they've gained further steam with the rise of the smartphone. Sometimes the scheduling entails letting on-site employees work from home one or two days a week; but frequently companies hire employees who live in distant states and different time zones. Unfortunately, Yahoo's new telecommuting policy, which is set to go into effect in June, casts these arrangements in a bad light.

Mayer reportedly made the decision after checking the company's VPN logs to see how often remote employees were logging in. Evidently, she didn't like what she saw. The resulting media excitement added to fuel to the fire for those who think that employees working at home aren't putting in an honest day's work.

The bad press shouldn't terminate telecommuting for everyone, however. We talked to several CEOs, HR managers, and IT folks at small and midsize businesses to find out what they do to ensure that their remote workers actually work. All of the folks we interviewed agree: Making arrangements for remote workers can make both employers and employees happier. Work-from-home arrangements can also maximize time on the clock and save everyone money. Better still, companies can monitor telecommuting without ever checking a VPN log.

"In a big company, the CEO is tasked with keeping track of the actions of tens of thousands of employees, and checking VPN logs is a perfectly rational way to start that process," says David Bloom, the CEO of tech startup Ordr.in, who manages a team of five employees, one of whom works remotely. "But if you're doing that for your small company, you've already lost. You've lost a measure of trust. In a small company, the CEO should have much more personal and interactive relationships with their employees. You should have a system in place to know that they're doing their work, without looking at any server logs."

Talking face-to-face

Bloom says that he relies heavily on daily video chats conducted via the free Google Hangouts video chat service. "Everyone logs on for 15 minutes each morning, so we can all talk about what we've accomplished and what we're working on. We have five employees, and four of us are in the same place, but we all log on separately. This allows us to have a face-to-face meeting where everyone's equal. It's not the four of us sitting in one place, with our colleague sitting somewhere else."

Arriving at this system wasn't easy, though. Bloom says he tried daily email exchanges, weekly meetings, and weekly reports from the CEO and CTO before realizing that a quick, daily, face-to-face, (albeit virtually so) meeting was the best way for Ordr.in staffers to touch base. And the arrangement keeps all of his employees accountable for their work.

In addition to conducting these daily meetings, Ordr.in uses Asana task management software, which is free for teams with up to 29 members. The software runs $100 per month for teams that have 30 to 50 members, and prices go up from there.

Josh Siler, the founder and CTO of HiringThing, which creates software for companies looking to post jobs online, likewise believes that virtual face-to-face contact is one of the best tools for managing remote employees. He founded HiringThing as a virtual company from the outset, and its six employees live in various places on the West Coast.

"We use GoToMeeting for video conferencing three times a week," Siler says. "Being able to see someone's face makes a big difference." And it doesn't cost a lot: GoToMeeting, which lets you conduct high-definition video conferences that attendees can join from a PC or from a mobile device, starts at $49 a month for unlimited meetings of up to 25 attendees.

Siler says that the virtual office he created at HiringThing has been effective. He notes that the company relies heavily on free calling and video conferencing from Skype, as well as 37 Signals' Campfire chat tool, which starts at $12 a month for a Basic plan that covers 12 users and offers 1GB of storage. HiringThing also uses Google's Gmail and Calendar apps for business, which start at $5 per user per month, and GitHub, which offers online tools for software development. GitHub is free for open-source users, and starts at $7 per month for all other software developers.

But just as important as the products HiringThing uses is the company culture that has emerged, Siler says. "We're trust-based, and we don't micromanage our employees. We judge everyone based on their output. Anyone can make their schedule flexible, as long as they meet their commitments to their coworkers," he says. "Our employees know that their performance is what matters, and we talk about it on a regular basis."

Gathering at the virtual watercooler

Peter Kirwan, Jr., the CEO and co-founder of Collexion, an online startup preparing to launch a site for collectors, also uses Skype--on a 65-inch TV--to stay in touch with remote employees based, in some cases, thousands of miles away from his company's San Diego headquarters. Kirwan also relies on Google Apps email and calendar, the free Google Drive for file sharing, Skype, and Smartsheet's online project-planning tools, which are available starting at $16 per month. He and Collexion cofounder Doug Taylor agree that the wiki they use, Atlassian's Confluence--which is available with a Starter License (for ten or fewer users) for $10 per month--is key to their success with remote workers.

"Thanks to social networks, people are becoming more effective at expressing small thoughts online," Taylor says. "The wiki allows them to express themselves in this way, and it allows people to overhear the conversation, and keep it going. It also creates accountability, because we know when someone said something if it's written on the wiki."

Also vital to Collexion is Asana's task management software (the same program used at Ordr.in.), which allows employees to create and assign tasks to others--even the boss. "It can be hard for some people, but we've worked to create a culture from the top down where it's okay to send a task to your boss. We don't want people sending email, we want them sending tasks," Kirwan says. He adds that the program's ability to allow comments on tasks helps keep everyone accountable.

Creating the right (virtual) atmosphere

While all of these tools and products can keep remote employees connected and accountable, everyone we interviewed for this article agrees that no tool is worth much if your company doesn't have the right attitude and culture for accommodating remote employees. And some folks don't rely on technology at all.

"I'm a big believer in the ROWE [Results Only Work Environment] movement. It's all about treating your staff like adults and allowing them to manage their own time," says Ben Eubanks, the HR manager for Pinnacle Solutions, a 70-person engineering and training service provider based in Huntsville, Alabama. Owing to its work as a government contractor, Pinnacle Solutions currently manages more employees located outside its home office than based in it, but Eubanks says that Pinnacle doesn't use any specific tech products to make sure that they're getting their work done.

"We have a strict hiring process, and we screen rigorously to find people who meet our core values, which we communicate early and often. A couple of times, we have run into people who can't handle the freedom--people who want to goof off instead of working. But we can tell when they're not meeting deadlines, and we get the process started to find someone else who can," Eubanks says. "It all comes back to our core values and our ability to communicate them."

Communication is key, whether you manage a staff of 2 or of 222. And you can find plenty of products designed to help you to keep everybody on task--without forcing you to play taskmaster.


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