Telecommuting, like the Internet, offers a great means to conduct business—if done right. Otherwise, it can turn into a black hole that consumes your money and damages your relationships with both employees and customers.
Here at OnlineBenefits, we've been quite successful with telecommuting. Our 60-employee company provides human resources services via the Web to subscribing business customers. Headquartered on New York's pricey Long Island, we've found that telecommuting gives our employees unrivaled flexible work schedules and eliminates long commutes for those who live farther out. It also reduces the overhead costs of supporting remote offices for our dispersed national sales team.
Yet there are serious challenges to effectively implementing a telecommuting program—end-user support, maintaining a standard configuration and budgeting for success.
Supporting remote end-users is the biggest challenge. Although our tech support can rely on remote tools to keep systems running smoothly, the distance between user and support staff can create issues you never dreamed of. Employees will alter the standard configuration on their computers, for example, but won't inform tech support. That won't stop them, however, from calling tech support for help.
When one of our employees complained that his computer wasn't connecting properly, tech support assumed they understood the employee's desktop setup, only to discover—more than one hour later—that he'd recently installed a wireless network in his house. Now, if employees want wireless, we offer to procure, configure and send them the router. That way, we know what they have, and that makes providing support easier.
Maintaining consistency across hardware is another critical issue. We guarantee byzantine problems if your off-site employees use different hardware setups. We buy the same notebook PC model for all remote users. And we buy extras—not only to accommodate our expanding employee base but also because notebooks can break. We recommend buying extra models during the initial purchase because you'll need them before the next upgrade. And when you need them in a few months, the model you buy now won't be available.
Don't try telecommuting on the cheap. When you evaluate the costs of telecommuting, don't panic at the dollar signs, then buy low-end equipment and skimp on bandwidth. Without fail, you'll have problems. Do it right the first time. Buy for future needs, not just today's. That means buy notebooks powerful enough today that they will operate well in two to three years. If you have a large number of remote users, consider installing a virtual private network (VPN) concentrator, which creates encrypted authentication with dynamic shared keys. Our concentrator cost a couple of thousand dollars and required some computer savvy to set up. But the upfront cost and effort was worth it. It's been several years and we haven't had to make any changes.
Get enough bandwidth. A company with a handful of Web browsers to support could get away with a Digital Subscriber Line. But OnlineBenefits must support VPNs, Web hosting, e-mail and connectivity to central applications. We'd max out a DSL very quickly. And nothing is more frustrating than having to rely on an Internet connection that moves slower than traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
If you're a small business, don't be afraid of telecommuting. You'll need to provide support, but the days when only large companies could effectively offer telecommuting are over.
Telecommuting provides OnlineBenefits a way to hold down costs, cut employee commutes and better serve customers. And it lets small guys like us compete effectively with the big boys.
Pinna and Mackey are with OnlineBenefits, a human resources company in Uniondale, N.Y.