Telecommuting Can Keep Employees Happy- And Cost You Customers

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 11:49 AM EST

Is working from home going to cost a Denver probate judge her job? It might happen because when her employees work from home, there's no one manning the offices at the courthouse. This is a big problem when there's only one place people can go for a service. It's potentially deadly when your customers have options and can choose to leave you.

Many people think of telecommuting and remote working as the answer to life's problems (and if that's all it takes, I want their life!). While it's true that allowing flexibility in where and when people work can raise productivity and reduce turnover, it can also cause headaches if it's not done with the business in mind. If customers can't get served, or your internal people can't get their work done because important information doesn't flow, then all the cost savings in the world won't save you.

It seems that there are a lot of complaints about people working from home and not being accessible to customers. If true, it's a big problem. There are also a lot of other factors at play , which makes the story not quite so cut-and-dried as it seems at first. Regardless, it does raise some issues you need to consciously address before you and your team quit making that commute.
  • The work comes first, the remote comes second. It's one thing to keep employees happy by allowing them flexibility, it's something else to do that at the expense of the business. It sounds as if this work from home plan was done partly to keep employees from leaving, since turnover in that office was a big problem. Of course, employee absenteeism and inefficiency was a problem before -- often there would be too few people at the office to get work done. Was this a problem of employee morale and absenteeism that working from home will fix (in which case it could be a smart move) or did they have employees who couldn't be bothered to show up for work (it won't magically make them more conscientious or efficient)? Lazy, undisciplined workers don't miraculously become better just because they stay home.
  • Ask yourself: how have customers worked with you in the past, and have you helped them find you? Working remotely doesn't make you inaccessible, it makes you accessible in different ways. If your clients are used to just running over to your office unscheduled (like whenever a lawyer needs something processed immediately) and they find a locked door or one overworked person at the reception desk it can cause problems. Was there a plan in place to let people know that paperwork would be processed remotely? How can they get answers to their questions? Did stakeholders know things were going to change in advance or did they just find a locked office or a note taped to the door? Communicate potential changes like this to your customers in advance. An email the Friday before everyone stays home isn't going to help.
  • Make changes slowly, not all at once, so everyone can adjust. If you had a magic wand, you could wave it and everything would transition smoothly. Since you're reading this, I'm guessing you don't have one and have to actually work like the rest of us poor slobs. Seismic changes in the way you work can really damage client relationships and even cause internal problems. Things have run a certain way for a long time and changing how a lot of people get their work done won't be easy. Start with one function or team and roll your remote working strategy out over time. Show it can work, get some success stories and then learn from your mistakes and replicate the best practices.
  • There may be parts of your business that simply won't work remotely. If it's absolutely crucial that hand-signed documents get physically handed to other human beings teleworking won't cut it, or at least isn't a complete solution. You don't see a lot of remote-operated lawn services. You need to be where the grass is.
I can see where allowing people to process paperwork remotely can work. I can also see the bedlam that would result if wholesale changes are made to a century-old process without taking the customers into account.

How well thought out is your company's remote working strategy? Have you kept your (internal and external) customers in mind?