When Employees Ask: May I Work From Home?

Thanks to advances in technology, working from home is easier than ever before, but still many small business owners are reticent to let employees work remotely.

According to a survey by Microsoft (MSFT), small and medium business owners cite security and productivity losses as reasons for not allowing remote shifts. But letting employees work from somewhere other than the office may not only save money on overhead, experts say it can actually increase productivity and morale. Employing a few technologies like these can help ensure the process is seamless and efficient.

Unified Communications

In this day and age most, if not all, office communication is done on a computer or via a telephone. Employing a unified communications suite of software allows a small business owner and employees to switch from e-mail, to instant messaging to video chats all within one application.

“Unified communications allows you to communicate in the most effective media depending on the type of needs you have,” said Randy Stuckless, Microsoft technology partner advisor.Let’s say you’re reading an e-mail and have a question. With this technology, instead of picking up the phone, you can click on the ‘IM’ link within the e-mail and send a direct message. The software also lets users share a desktop with an employee who may be miles away. The products from the likes of Microsoft and Cisco Systems (CSCO) also include customer management software and collaboration applications.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing, or accessing software and hardware over the Web, is instrumental for small businesses that have remote workers. With the technology, a small business owner and employees can access data that’s stored on the web, securely log in to the company’s network and also access key applications -- without having to step foot in the office. Not only does it provide easy, secure access, but it also saves money, since the business owner won’t need to pay for costly servers and software licenses, not to mention the support that comes with it.

Typically cloud computing applications are charged on a monthly basis.

“If you are using cloud based services it’s going to take up less space and enables you to either move to a smaller office or go virtual altogether,” said Rieva Lesonsky, an author of business and technology books. What’s more collaborative, this software ensures employees are continuing to work together, even if they don’t share a cubicle.

Video Conferencing

Taking it a technical step further, small business owner can equip remote workers with a video camera and software to host “face-to-face” meetings. After all, facial expressions can say more than what you would get from a telephone call.

“One of the areas that was commonly expressed as an area of concern was the inability for people working remotely to see the person whom they were communicating with,” said Stuckless. Using video conferencing can ensure things aren’t lost in translation. Small business owners can engage in one-on-one video conferencing for free from Skype, or pay for multi-seat video conferences on a monthly basis.

Instant Messaging

For many workers, instant-messaging can be an annoyance, but for remote workers it is a necessity. Part of working remotely is accepting the fact that you’ll need to be available throughout the work day, in the same manner as if you were sitting next to the boss or colleague. Having and using instant messaging can play that role. With instant messaging, questions can be answered in seconds instead of the many minutes it may take to get someone on the phone or e-mail.

“One of the things that get lost [with remote workers] is the brainstorming and communications,” said Lesonsky. “Make sure the employees are enabling IM, and not hiding, and that people are actually speaking and interacting with one another.”At the end of the day, the best way to ensure remote workers actually work is to have policies in place before letting employees work from home. That includes deciding how many days the employees can work at home, who will foot the bill for technology and what communication tools will be used.

“You need to have a plan that clearly states what your expectations are,” said Lesonsky.