Best Practices for a Remote Workforce

This blog entry was posted by Ed Margulies, Senior Director, Product Management CRM Service Products at Oracle. Margulies is a telecommunications architect, usability expert, inventor, and the author of 17 books on telecommunications, contact centers and service automation. The views expressed in this blog are Margulies’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

CaaS: A Big Telecommuting Enabler

Communications as a Service is the right concept for at-home and remote workers. With applications ranging from contact center, customer relationship management and content management, thousands of job functions can be virtualized. In fact for some workers and even some companies, virtualization is quickly becoming a standard way to run companies. This accounts for both small and large companies.

Common Access Standards and Help Desk

Besides the more obvious issues of human capital and how to manage a remote workforce, it is a best practice to standardize on access methods and a means to troubleshoot those connections.

As a starting point, it is a good idea to establish a basic broadband connection standard. Increasingly, this can be done with wireless connections for a mobile workforce and economical cell phone and data broadband services can be negotiated with your favorite carrier. For at-home workers, a standard for DSL, satellite or cable connection is all you need. But it is easier for your IT Help Desk staff to support remote workers if everyone is using the same basic service. If this is not possible, you can still standardize on access packages. For example, you may want everyone using a connection that is at least 256 to 500Kbps and be willing to pay for whatever package allows that connection speed.

You also need to set up your corporate data network to allow remote access to your data stores. This will require separate tunneling or VPN software available from most networking vendors. It is important to make sure all of your remote workers have the ability to log on to this remote access software with regularly-changing passwords. Your IT Help Desk staff needs to be well-versed in basic PC troubleshooting, home networking, broadband modems, access services and VPN technology. If your staff is not set up to do this, consider outsourcing that capability so your remote workers have somewhere to turn when something goes wrong. This is crucial because every hour of down time for your remote staff is an hour work is not getting done.

I recommend doing a small, workgroup trial of both “remote worker beta testers” and also the Help Desk staff who would be their lifeline. This will help you to get all the kinks out before rolling the remote technology out to the whole workforce.

Social Apps and the Virtual Water Cooler

Nowadays, there is no reason why remote workers should be segregated or cut off from the rest of your employees. There are simple and direct ways to keep them in touch with one another to keep the social bond between them active. For example, you can set up your own social networking site or use sites that are available on the internet. You can encourage members of each time to interact by posting information about their projects (security allowing of course), asking for feedback from customers and readers, and by posting blogs.

In addition to non-real-time social networking sites, you can also encourage employee-to-employee communication with internal or public Instant Messaging (IM). While there is certain utility in sending short messages to one another, it is also useful in replacing the emotional gratification once supplied by chats at the water cooler. IM can be the “virtual water cooler” for a whole new generation of remote workers.

It is a best practice to encourage social interaction amongst your remote workers and to publish basic guidelines for these types of communications. These guidelines can point out issues dealing with company privacy, ethics and general on line etiquette. Of course, workers’ personal productivity will dictate how much water cooler activity is appropriate. One thing’s for sure, you cannot cut people off from socializing or it will hurt morale and generally cause a lack in productivity.

Remote Peer Review

Consider bolstering your peer review procedures to benefit remote workers. You can use file sharing, white boarding, email and web sharing applications to facilitate peer review, so there is little in the way from a technology point of view. What matters is a regular, and frequent review of one another’s’ work from co workers. This helps to engender not only a spirit of teamwork, but also encourages high-quality output.

For example, consider the development of an outline for a user guide. Before getting started on the rich content of such a document, the author can host a working session on line and with a conference call where one or two co-workers can brainstorm the table of contents and chief topics. In some cases, this may be all some people need to get on the right track. This is also useful for a project manager to establish key milestones for a complex project, or for synthesizing input for a sales pitch or a product demo. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the project is. What matters is a standard way to approach, define, and solicit input at crucial steps along the way. It is a best practice, then, to put together simple guidelines for the approach and kickoff of virtually any project. You can build more examples as your remote workers begin to participate in remote peer reviews.

Weekly Cross-Team Meetings

Cross-Team meetings are a great way to develop trust and interactivity between remote workers. For the remote worker, having transparency with their work product as well as others also engenders a spirit of accountability. A basic cross team meeting is hosted by a facilitator – usually the same person each week. It is a best practice to establish a ‘same day – same time’ schedule for these meetings so there is no misunderstanding about who is supposed to show up when.

A common and effective best practice is to agree on a common template for presentation materials so each department has one slide or one graph to present each week. A remote file locker can be set up for each participant to upload their part of the presentation ahead of time.

Content-wise, it is best to limit each department’s contribution to one slide. For example, the sales team can show a grid of hot prospects and needs they have for other teams to fulfill in helping to close deals. The support department might have a slide that addresses customer satisfaction issues or support newsflashes. Development may have a slide to show the status of a new feature release. The idea is to give each department a few minutes to present their part and have enough time after each mini-presentation for questions and answers. Any big issues requiring more discussion can be handled in breakout sessions for the stakeholders involved.

In summary, you can enable a productive and well-adjusted workforce by following a few simple principles. Make sure you establish standards and basic nuts and bolts support services so everyone can be connected. Encourage electronic forms of social interaction. And encourage regular and standard ways for your workers to review one another’s work products and share ideas in cross-team meetings. By following these simple principles and providing guidelines for appropriate use, you can develop a strong and productive telecommuting workforce.

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The Communications as a Service (CaaS) blog covers industry trends, strategies, best practices and innovations in subscription-based enhanced communications services. CaaS takes in everything from hosted virtual contact centers, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), multi-channel enabled self service, Voice 2.0, and communications-centric social apps.

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