Maximizing Value and Minimizing Risk with Remote Workers

11/30/12Follow @drmime

For me, being able to work remotely is one of the greatest gifts of the information age. It allowed me to help raise my daughters in the ’80s and ’90s, live almost four hours from a major airport, and now I’m able to visit my granddaughters in Chicago at the drop of a hat, all while scarcely missing a beat at work.

But while remote working succeeds more often than not, there are, nonetheless, many ways it can partly or wholly fail. After witnessing many such failures while working from home successfully for fully 100,000 years (ok, 32 in decimal), I have a few thoughts about ensuring that working from home is a net benefit for both the company and the employee.

Remote Work

It’s important to understand the range of possible work-at-home arrangements. Today, nearly every company will at least allow some employees to work from home for a few days due to natural disasters, illness, or other exceptional conditions. On the other extreme, most companies have not yet experienced the joy of an employee working from the wilderness. That’s obviously more likely to cause problems and warrants much more careful consideration.

In between those two extremes is plenty of middle ground that companies can use as perks to attract good people. Some companies allow everyone to work from home on Wednesdays; others allow people in certain job functions to work from home two or three days per week—the permutations are endless. Sometimes, it works out wonderfully. Other times, not so much. I believe that thoughtful management can ensure that the latter situation is rare enough to be far outweighed by the benefits of the success stories.

Proximate Problems

When you ask people about the hardest part of managing remote employees, you’ll usually hear terms such as “communication,” “team cohesion,” and “bonding.” These are all important concerns, but I think they are secondary problems to the deepest one: trust.

A manager has to trust an employee to do his job reasonably well, and an employee has to trust his manager to treat him fairly and ethically. Two employees need to trust each other to collaborate and help each other get their jobs done. Without such trust, team cohesion is dead in the cradle and communication becomes an exercise in subtle codes and analysis.

I cannot give a recipe for establishing trust between two people. However, I have observed that it is much more likely if the two people spend some time—preferably … Next Page »

Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist at e-mail management firm Mimecast. Based in Michigan, he is the co-creator of the MIME e-mail standard and previously co-founded First Virtual Holdings and NetPOS. Follow @drmime

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