Telecommuting is gaining popularity among workers and managers alike. Remote employees tend to enjoy the freedom that working from home offers, while supervisors benefit from cost savings related to the reduced need for space and equipment. More importantly, companies can improve their overall efficiency with the help of a telecommuting staff: A study published by Pennsylvania State University in late 2007 reported that remote workers are on average more productive than their cubicle-bound counterparts.
But what about your company's remote workers? Are you worried that they might be slacking off? It's certainly possible that some telecommuters are taking unfair advantage of what should be a mutually beneficial arrangement. You should be able to get a good idea if your telecommuting staff is neglecting work by watching for one or more of the following warning signs.
1. Their productivity goes down the drain. This sounds like a blatantly obvious sign of loafing, but a major drop in productivity is certainly worth paying attention to — especially since some managers may forget to keep a close eye on what projects telecommuters are working on. Employees who are transitioning from an office environment to working at home will probably need some time to adjust before getting back to their normal performance levels, but they should rebound within a few weeks. You might also find it useful to compare telecommuters' performance with that of in-house employees who hold a similar position. Do the math, and if it doesn't add up, the telecommuter might be enjoying the perks of his or her new work environment a little too much.
2. They're unresponsive. If your telecommuters are failing to answer IMs (instant messages), calls and emails promptly, it's possible that they're engaged in activities other than their work responsibilities. Telecommuters should always inform their supervisors of appointments or other commitments that will prevent them from completing tasks in a timely manner. When you finally reach an unresponsive remote worker, ask about his or her absence and express your need for schedule updates to get him or her back on track.
3. Their answers are suspiciously polished. A typical automated email response is a snap to identify. But a handful of specialized programs, such as Expect, allow savvy users to set up a variety of mechanized answers to emails and IMs in order to disguise their absence. If you're suspicious that a remote worker is using such a program, send an email hinting at a raise or a potential layoff to gauge the employee's (or the program's) response. The answer should shed some light on whether the employee is really earning his or her salary.
4. They constantly have computer troubles or other technical difficulties. Most employees, regardless of whether they work from home or the office, suffer from occasional viruses or hard-drive meltdowns. But if a telecommuter uses the "technical difficulties" excuse at least once per week, they could be busy improving their Solitaire stats instead of tending to their job responsibilities.
5. They'd rather enter data into spreadsheets than take on large projects. Telecommuters who are reluctant to work on a time-intensive project are probably preoccupied with dirty laundry and vacuuming and are looking for a way to disguise this by performing mindless, repetitive tasks. Assign seemingly unmotivated remote workers a large (but perhaps not mission-critical) project with a tight deadline to keep them in check.
6. They repeatedly reschedule phone calls and meetings with their supervisors. Meetings with a manager should never take a backseat to watching soap operas or working on home-improvement projects. If telecommuters are avoiding an in-office discussion or a scheduled phone call, they may think that their job is merely an inconvenience on their personal life.
7. You hear cheering, loud music or other unusual noises when speaking with the telecommuter via phone. It's true that many sports stadiums, movie theaters and restaurants now offer wifi. But that doesn't mean that such venues are good places to work. Remote employees should be able to determine where they do their jobs — within reason. Clarify in your company policies and employee contracts where telecommuters are expected to work and which locations are best for weekend assignments.
8. They know more about "The Jerry Springer Show" episodes than they do company news. Working from home can make it more difficult to stay in the loop on company affairs. Remote employees should therefore make an extra effort to keep updated and engaged in the company's health and progress. If a telecommuter seems indifferent to company news, he or she may not care all that much about his or her future with the organization.
9. They don't take vacation days. Telecommuters will probably take less time off than on-site staff since they can run short errands and nurse minor illnesses easier than their commuting peers. But be suspicious if remote workers never go on vacation — they might be doing so little work that they never need a break.
10. They have increasingly inventive excuses for not meeting deadlines. One of the main advantages of telecommuting is the ability to alter work schedules to fit an individual's needs. Parents, for instance, can take their children to school without having to worry about being late to work. But a flexible schedule doesn't translate to a shorter workday. Be wary of frequent and unusual excuses for missing deadlines — chances are, the telecommuter simply slept in or got distracted by a beautiful day.
11. They complain about their workload. Managers should take employee concerns about arduous workloads seriously. But if you've given a supposedly overworked telecommuter less to do and you're still hearing complaints, be suspicious. Your employee might be whining because he or she doesn't want to do any work.
A hardworking telecommuting staff may be just the productivity boost that your company needs, and it's certainly good for employee morale. But be careful — if remote workers exhibit too many of the above warning signs, your company might be paying them to goof off.
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