Why remote offices mean better IT teams

As the IT market evolves, so has the way America's IT workers do their job. According to a recent BLS survey, 24% of working Americans reported that they work at least some hours at home each week.

As IT job markets become more and more competitive, this trend is likely to continue. While this shift offers many benefits, it also brings its own set of problems that center on communication, collaboration and the unification of your team. CIO.com spoke with the CEO of REAL Software, Geoff Perlman, to find out what it takes to run an operation that consists entirely of remote employees.

"Remote employees are increasingly common in the IT field. It's an adjustment that's happening," says Perlman, who has a unique perspective on remote employees having run a technology company for more than four years, employing only remote workers. However, it wasn't always that way. While Perlman was starting his company in Austin, Texas, in 2008 he had only one remote developer who didn't want to leave his native Colorado. As his company grew, and he hired more remote office employees, he became more and more comfortable with the idea.

"Remote employees are increasingly common in the IT field. It's an adjustment that's happening."

"I was reading an article about how 75% of MySQL developers work from home and I found that interesting. IBM also has huge amount of people who work from home. It made me realize that it was a possibility and I did my research," says Perlman.

After doing his research, Perlman gathered all his employees and hashed out a plan where every employee would work remotely for a month. In that month, they identified tools for communicating and collaborating as well as identified problems that they needed to deal with. The experience made Perlman decide to move his entire operation out of a traditional brick and mortar office and into remote offices.

Related Story: 8 Tips to Increase IT Worker Retention

The Benefits of Remote Employees

Advances in collaboration and communication technology in recent years have made sharing documents, video conferencing/desktop-sharing and instant messaging second nature to most people who work in the IT market.

In a recent Harvard Business Review Blog, Scott Edinger argues that remote employees are, in fact, more engaged and connected, and employers are really the ones benefitting from all this.

Employees who work remotely, of course, don't require a physical office and many times use most of their own hardware and software, says Perlman. It's also worth noting that, according to BLS statistics, remote employees work on average an hour longer each day than their brethren in the office, which can equate to almost six extra weeks of productivity over the course of the year.

"I find I work much longer hours from home. Many clients expect me to be available 24/7 and I try to accommodate them even when it means working late or weekends," says Linda Cole, remote office worker and Internet consultant.

In its report The Hard Truth about Telecommuting. BLS also says, "an increasing number of jobs in the American economy could be performed at home if employers were willing to allow employees to do so."

According to BLS statistics, remote employees work on average an hour longer each day than their brethren in the office

How to Find the Right Fit

Building a remote IT team poses significant challenges, not the least of which is finding the person with the right skillset who also fits well into your company culture. Perlman says it's not necessarily important to find someone with experience working remotely. However, the three items below are critical to success when searching for someone to work remotely:

Great communication skills

Passionate about their work

Excited about the idea of working from home

"Qualities that you typically look for when interviewing candidates need to be even stronger than a typical office person," says Perlman, "If they are a supervisor or manager and manage remote employees then they need to be able to read signals better because [they] won't be able to use body language."

"Qualities that you typically look for when interviewing candidates need to be even stronger than a typical office person."

Managers need to listen more closely for those clues that can signal discontent, boredom or burnout. "Typically it's strong communicators and classic self-starters who are team-oriented. Screen carefully," says Perlman.

The tone you use when communicating can also play a factor. "While it's important to be able to read signals from remote workers, it's equally important to be careful in how you express yourself. If you can't see your remote employee's body language--they can't see yours either," says Cole. Abrupt emails or phone calls can make a remote employee feel uneasy, even more so when it's a regular routine.

Related Story: 8 Hiring Tips for Identifying Superstar Developers

Communicating and Collaborating With Remote Employees

Getting the right employees on board is only half the battle. Keeping them engaged and excited can be challenging as well. "Setting the tone for your remote, collaborative team is vital," says Perlman. Developing an effective communication plan should be a top priority.

Perlman's team uses several tools to collaborate and communicate including remote mail hosting, Google Docs for file-sharing, desktop screen-sharing software and Skype for video conferencing. "Communication among team members varies depending on client/company preferences. Corporations I've worked for seem to prefer in-house and/or for-a-fee solutions while individual clients prefer free solutions: Skype, Yahoo IM and email," says Cole.

Intranets can also a great way to foster collaboration. "I've developed an entire intranet site that pulls together pertinent corporate information, multiple web-site specs, how-to manuals, contact directories, to-do lists, etc. for a client and their remote team members, using Google Sites. This intranet, along with Google Docs, eventually replaced third-party project management tools and 'to-do list' software," says Cole.

Office collaboration and project management tools are also a great way to help bring new team members up to speed. All the existing comments and notes available inside these tools allows new team members insight into how and why things were done, providing data that you wouldn't necessarily get from a verbal turnover. As for training employees on new technologies Perlman says, "If they can hear you and see your screen, how is it different than being in the office?"

Avoid Common Remote Employee Pitfalls

What's most important, says Perlman, is that "companies need to have metrics that show whether or not the employees are getting the job done." One of the largest issues with remote employees, which affect businesses of all sizes, is how to get everyone on the same page. However, Perlman says he noticed something else, too, "An unexpected side-effect was that when we had an office, a lot of discussions and meetings would take place informally. Remote employees felt left out of the discussions and would hear about decisions made after the fact." With all of his employees working remotely, this problem went away. The people who should have been in the know, were included appropriately.

"Companies need to have metrics that show whether or not the employees are getting the job done."

While remote employees don't have to deal with the pressures of commuting and have a more flexible work schedule, they face their own unique challenges each day. Remote office workers often feel disconnected, out of the decision-making loop and passed over during promotion times. "Particularly discouraging to the remote worker is spending hours on a task only to find out that in-office discussion has changed the task description or deemed the task unnecessary," says Cole.

An employer must do what's necessary to make everyone feel included. Perlman says a crucial part of his job is to recognize the subtle clues employees give when feeling this way and then to address them in a positive way with the employee.

To avoid the most common problems, Perlman says, "we communicate a lot, sometimes it's IM, sometimes we'll just get on video chat and talk about anything other than work. As a manager, I look for signs that someone is under a lot of stress. If I see that, I bring it up to them and we talk about it."

Face-to face time is also important, "When you have teams you do need to get them together physically. There is a big benefit to that," says Perlman. "Each year we get our teams together. We'll do planning and strategy meetings, but we'll also have fun together."

This type of team-building can play an important role in fostering company culture and employee bonding. Having meetings at restaurants or coffee shops are another way to get that face-to-face time.

Having the right strategy in place can keep your employees happy and productive. Our attrition rate is lower now, says Perlman, "because before there was more of a desire to move people to Austin. People would move because they wanted the job but they were leaving behind friends, family... ."

Related Story: For Tech Staffers, Working Remotely Requires More Than Wi-Fi and a Desk

To Build a Remote Office or Not?

Remote office employees may not be for every industry, but the dollars and cents are starting to add up in favor of it. Not being constrained by a physical office can offer employers a much larger group of IT professionals to enlist, allowing companies that are willing to take the plunge to build a stronger team than ever.

Does your company employ remote offices? What are the major issues you face? Thank you for your feedback.

This story, "Why remote offices mean better IT teams" was originally published by CIO.

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