August 05, 2013, 1:28 PM — Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines in February when she banned telecommuting, as did Best Buy when it canceled its telework program shortly afterward. But according to the Families and Work Institute (PDF), remote working is on the rise: Last year 63% of companies reported giving employees workplace flexibility, up from 34% in 2005. And in a recent Gallup survey, 39% of employees said they spent some time working remotely. The research firm also found that remote workers put in more hours and are slightly more engaged than their office counterparts.
It's all well and good for workers who can opt out of frazzling commutes or choose to crank out a bunch of work in their pajamas, but what about their boss? How can you know if telecommuters are working as much as they say they are, and how can you help them do their best work? Here are some of the best tools available to promote stellar communication with remote workers.
For feedback and communications: 15Five
Forget about tedious status reports. This slick cloud platform works as a communications backbone for companies by prompting employees to spend 15 minutes a week writing about their successes, challenges, ideas, and morale in a report that takes a manager only 5 minutes to read. Managers decide the questions 15Five asks, such as "What's going well in your role?" or "What challenges are you facing, and where do you need support?" With the click of a button, managers can include an employee comment in their own report. Whenever an executive responds to an idea or issue, both the manager and employee receive an email notification, so they can hop back onto 15Five to continue the conversation.
Currently 15Five is off-limits if you use a free email provider, such as Gmail or Yahoo. The company plans to lift that restriction in an upcoming upgrade to the platform. Try it at no charge for four weeks; after the trial period, it costs $49 a month for the first ten people and $5 more for each additional person.
For project management: Asana or Pivotal Tracker
Though millions of people use Basecamp, that solid and popular project management platform no longer offers a free version. Instead, tiers start at $1 a day for managing up to 15 projects. If you're managing a small business on a tight budget, try Asana, a free product you can use on the Web or on your mobile device.
Asana's cloud platform (which resembles the three-paneled Web app that Evernote uses) gives you a wealth of information about a given project. On the left you can filter what will appear in the main, middle section by project or team member. Click a particular task there to get more details about it in the right pane--information such as due dates, people assigned to the project, and comments that team members have made about it. Asana lets you attach files from your computer, Google Drive, or Dropbox to any task. The company also nudges new users toward a demo video to make the process of getting started less difficult.
If your employees are coders, you might try Pivotal Tracker, a project management tool for software development teams. It starts at $7 a month for three collaborators and five projects.
For 'face-to-face' virtual meetings: Google+ Hangouts or Zoom
For a two-person video call, Skype is easy and free. But if you want to Skype with up to ten people at once, someone in the group has to ante up for Skype Premium, which starts at $5 a month.
For that reason, I recommend using Google+ Hangouts, which is free for meetings of up to ten people. Though you have to have a Google+ account to use one, iOS and Mac users can also take part. In contrast, Apple's FaceTime isn't available on Android or Windows.
Google has baked some pretty cool features into Hangouts, such as Hangouts On Air, which lets you live-stream any Hangout to Google+, record it to your YouTube channel, or broadcast it to your website. You can also share screenshots, snap photos of the Hangout, and pull in apps like SlideShare and Cacoo to give presentations and enable drawing, respectively.
If you need to hold an online meeting with more than ten participants, you might try Zoom. For $10 a month (or no charge if you can keep your meeting to less than 40 minutes), it lets you include up to 25 participants. And like Google+ Hangouts, Zoom works on your mobile device. Unlike Hangouts, however, Zoom supports HD video and audio.
For payroll: Intuit Online Payroll
Intuit's Online Payroll, which easily lets you export data to sister products QuickBooks and QuickBooks Online, is perfect for small businesses. For one thing, it gives you tons of assistance as you enter data during initial setup. This process can be complicated because you have to deal with so many variables, from your pay schedule to federal, state, and local taxes. Intuit's setup wizard generates a to-do list that identifies required and recommended tasks, and its email reminders help ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.
Intuit Online Payroll lets you access payroll information from a Web browser, smartphone, or tablet. It comes in three flavors. Basic, which starts at $25 per month, is strictly for paying people. Enhanced (starting at $35 per month) generates paychecks, automatically fills in W-2s and federal and state tax forms, and reminds you when payroll taxes are due. Full Service (starting at $99 per month) takes care of paying workers as well as filing and paying taxes. Under each plan, you must pay an extra $2 per month for every employee you pay. For an additional $3 per person per month, you can add a time-tracker module to the service: Employees can then clock in and out and complete their own timesheets, eliminating the need for double entry.
For expenses: Expensify
Expensify--offered by a San Francisco startup whose tagline is "Expense reports that don't suck"--is an online tool and mobile app that greatly simplifies tracking expenses and creating and submitting expense reports. When installed on your employees' mobile devices, the mobile app lets them record expenses on the fly, snap photos of receipts, use GPS to figure out how many miles they're driving, and track how many hours they're spending on a project. This is especially handy now that Expensify offers invoicing features.
Once back in the office, workers can access the Web app, which syncs with information entered on the mobile app. From there, they can use Expensify's SmartScan technology to analyze photos of receipts and automatically fill in date and amount fields. If users import bank and credit card transactions, the platform will generate e-receipts for expenses that will pass muster with the IRS, so nobody has to keep files of paper receipts.
Expensify integrates with many popular products, including Evernote, FinancialForce, FreshBooks, Google Apps, NetSuite, QuickBooks, and Salesforce. You'll need a premium subscription to connect to some of these accounts.
The free version lets bosses accept, review, and approve the expense reports of two employees. Coverage of additional staffers costs $6 per person per month. Users can upload as many receipts as they want to Expensify. Free SmartScans are limited to ten per month, after which they cost 20 cents each.
Want more? If you need to track remote workers' time on the job, give TransparentBusiness a whirl. It does things like take screenshots from an employee's computer every few minutes. For phone-intensive businesses, ShoreTel Sky's VoIP technology (priced at $35 to $50 per user per month) enables your people to transfer calls to each other even if they're all working remotely--and it lets you see how much time they're spending on the phone. Need to group-chat with a bunch of people at once? Try HipChat. Harvest is great for time-tracking, managing expenses, and invoicing, and it integrates into many project-management apps. FreshBooks is a good cloud-based accounting service that integrates with a plethora of other software platforms that your employees might already be using.
Honestly, the list could go on. There has never been a better time to embrace remote work, because fantastic, affordable tools abound that make keeping in touch with telecommuters dead simple.