Telecommuting Employees: Are They Really Working?

Last Updated Dec 7, 2010 12:21 PM EST

By AmyLynn Keimach, Co-owner, Border7 Studios, Simi Valley, Calif.
Work/life balance is an absolute necessity for both me and my business partner: We both run our Web site design studio and go to school. We have to be able to take a few days off to study for a big exam, or work flexible hours around our class schedules.

We hired our first employee in 2009, and have brought on seven more since then. We want to offer the same workplace flexibility to our mix of full-time and part-time employees as we allow ourselves, but it comes down to a question of trust: When an employee logs in from home, how can we be sure that he's really working?

It has taken us about a year -- and a fair amount of trial and error -- but we've finally figured out how to do a better job of managing this kind of flexibility.

Who needs a five-hour commute?
Our first employee worked for us for six months before we started letting him work from home part of the time. His commute took a total of five hours -- he'd leave his house at 5 a.m. and get to the office at 10 a.m. -- and involved a train and a bike. That is just insane. He now splits his time between home and the office.

Everything we do takes place online, so working remotely really only requires Internet access. We conduct a lot of our back-and-forth conversations on Campfire, and share files on Basecamp.

But there is still the question of trust.

In one instance, we had an employee who didn't seem like a good candidate for telecommuting. She always seemed a little distracted at the office, and she had trouble getting her work done. Still, we wanted to give everyone the option to work from home from time to time. With this employee, that just didn't work. She didn't get anything done at home. We eventually let her go because she didn't get anything done in the office either.

Setting up rules
After that situation, we set some ground rules so that employees understand that it's a benefit -- not a right -- to work remotely.

First, we sit down with everyone and discuss how long individual tasks will take to complete. We often juggle a number of client projects at once, so breaking them down into small tasks that we dole out to everyone is the best way to keep things running smoothly. If you tell us it will take a week to do something, fine. But since you've set the milestone, you'd better be able to hit it.

An employee must make all of his deadlines for six months before we start talking about working from home. Once he starts telecommuting, he has to keep hitting all his deadlines, or we're left to assume that he was goofing off instead of working, and he'll lose that benefit.

One employee has made every single deadline in the year that she's been with us. Not only does she get to work from home when she wants, but we just offered her a day off in the middle of the week -- a paid vacation day -- as thanks, and as further incentive for everyone else. We want to keep things as positive as possible for our employees. My philosophy is that a happy employee is a productive employee.

Still not perfect
We try to build up trust, but we still do a certain amount of monitoring to be sure. Since we're always chatting on Campfire, we'd notice pretty quickly if someone wasn't at his computer when he's supposed to be working at home. But we've also set up a schedule where remote employees send us a screenshot at specific times each day to show us what they're working on.

I wish we had a better way to monitor things -- or that we didn't have to monitor at all -- but we haven't come up with anything that's less intrusive. And if we're going to grow our company as fast as we want to, we have to make sure we're not sacrificing productivity for flexibility.

Last year, when we were just two or three people, we made $60,000 in revenue. This year, we've been able to grow to $200,000, and we hope to reach half a million by the end of our third year. We want to stay small -- no more than 20 employees -- so if we're going to keep growing revenue, we're all going to have to work hard together.

Have you found a better way to make sure remote employees get their work done?

-- As told to Peter McDougall

AmyLynn Keimach is double-majoring in business administration and philosophy at her local community college, and plans to transfer to University of Southern California. Her other efforts to boost employee morale include a monthly movie night, and a custom-designed Nerf gun employees receive after a year of great service to the company.