14 Things Corporations Can Learn from Seasoned Web Workers

ScreenshotAs the New York Times has noticed, big corporations are starting to get with the web work program. But they’re mostly doing it in a big corporation sort of way, with fancy (and expensive) telepresence systems. While this approach may indeed offset the rapidly-rising price of travel, those of us who are long-term web workers may roll our eyes at this narrow-minded perception of the best way to remotely work.

From our point of view, throwing huge outlays of cash at unnecessarily complex and high-priced teleconferencing systems misses the point. We already know that you don’t need to jet around the globe to get productive work done. But you don’t have to break the bank either. Any corporation that really wants to take the time to understand the tools that are available to them on the internet right now can cut expenses, enhance productivity, and increase employee satisfaction.

While the giants have been slowly waking up to the concepts of distributed work and remote collaboration, web workers all over the world have been steadily figuring out what works and what doesn’t.  Here’s our “from the trenches” advice for any corporation that wants to listen. We won’t even charge you six figures for it.

Busting the Corporate Myths Around Remote Work:

1. Physical presence does not necessarily mean quality presence. Big companies seem to hold on tightly to their fear that if they can’t see you in the office, it means you aren’t working. But being present in the office does not guarantee that you are truly engaged. By the same token, being away from the office doesn’t mean you’re not working. There are dozens of project management tools – often including time tracking – that can help managers get a handle on their remote workers.

2. You can have a solid, high-contact client/vendor relationship without ever meeting face-to-face. The way of the smart-suited corporate rep flying around the world to press the flesh with the potential client may be going by the wayside. While face-to-face still has its place and value, interacting by video conferencing, phone and email is no longer “impersonal” and can be quite intimate and engaging. Many workers these days are just as comfortable with colleagues they’ve never met as they are with their in-office counterparts. Some of us here at WWD have been selling our products to clients for years without ever meeting in person.

3. Don’t ignore your workforce. Big corporations are bleeding employees as the mindset in the workplace shifts from “living to work” to “working to live.” Many cubicle workers are opting out of the corporate scene to go indy (and join the ranks of the flexible, remote workforce). What to do? Holding onto employees is critical. Many corporate employees want (even beg) for the ability to work remotely and to travel less to have a higher quality of life. Never mind the cost of the corporate jet: if you don’t address the needs of the cubicle-dwellers, you may not have a workforce for long. Don’t let corporate red tape and managerial fear hold back telecommuting efforts.

4. Bells and whistles telepresence equipment is big bucks overkill. When there are so many free and low-cost solutions for teleconferencing out there, why, oh why do corporations end up spending ridiculous sums of money to install “telepresence” solutions that are eerily like being there in person? Feeling like you’re in the same room with someone is a neat trick, but workers do not need this sort of “presence” to be productive. Inexpensive, even free, teleconferencing and videoconferencing solutions can still make distributed teams incredibly productive, especially when you back them up with access to ambient presence tools such as instant messaging and Twitter.

Some built-in benefits of digital and cloud workspaces:

5. Digital “paper” trails increase accountability. Unlike face-to-face meetings or phone calls that are not taped, many remote tools have built-in recording features. Using project management tools in the work process can also track and archive all correspondence. Switching from meetings to discussion boards helps make your “institutional memory” more readily available to all workers in the company, cutting down on needless searches for information.

6. Archived training videos and demos are right at your fingertips. They are also at your client’s or potential client’s fingertips any time of the day or night or in any time zone. Your sales tools are always at the ready. What could be better than making sales while you sleep?

7. Productivity increases when more contact-making is taking less time and money. You can be making important contacts using remote work, meeting and collaboration tools during the times you would otherwise spend on a plane. In addition, staying in the office (or at home!) is more restful than fighting with baggage claims and luggage searches. A well-rested worker is far more productive than a road-weary one.

8. Web work can help save the planet. Corporations are shouting from the tops of their skyscrapers that they are going green. Want an easy success story in this area that you can use to make stakeholders feel good about you? Save fossil fuels by implementing telecommuting and remote work processes. Corporate workers care about saving the planet, too.

9. Worker satisfaction can translate into worker retention. If you’re worried about costs, don’t overlook the costs of hiring and training workers. A well-implemented remote work program (even one that covers as little as one or two days per week) can result in happier employees, as well as bottom-line savings for both the corporation and the worker. That’s a good path to keeping your workforce working for you.

The best ways to “put your money where your mouth is”:

10. Set up a telecommuting program. This is a good step to show your employees that you’re serious about supporting web work. Even if there are jobs that must be done in the office, it’s not likely that every single employee needs to spend every single hour of the work week in the office for your company to survive and thrive.

11. Take advantage of video and audio conferencing solutions. Just because workers are out of the office (whether traveling, working in remote offices, or working from home) doesn’t mean that you have to be out of touch. We’ve documented an enormous number of ways to pull together a team for little or no money, from FreeTeleconference.com to Skype to WebEx. And don’t forget the screen sharing and desktop presentation tools like GoToMeeting and Screencast.

12. Encourage and enable cloud working. The more of your paperwork that you can move “into the cloud,” the easier it will be for people to work from anywhere. If you have highly-sensitive documents, you may have to enlist your IT department in setting up a VPN with controlled access, but for many routine workflows that’s overkill. For simple sharing and collaboration, consider Google Documents (or Google Apps for Domains), Zoho, and the like.

13. Implement collaborative documents. The more knowledge you can move into a form that is accessible from anywhere at any time, the more people will be able to work without relying on a callback or a meeting with some gatekeeper. There are any number of wiki, blogging, discussion board, and social network solutions that you can use to start capturing and reusing the things that are currently trapped in corporate silos.

14. Don’t shy away from virtual worlds. If you want a more personal alternative to instant messaging and email, without the constraints of teleconferencing, check out virtual worlds like Second Life or Google’s new Lively. As we’ve documented before, these can be a workable way to create a customized corporate space where people can develop a real sense of connection without actually visiting each other.

There you have it: our 14-point prescription for implementing remote solutions without a champagne and caviar budget. From our point of view, there’s no reason for any corporation to ignore these proven methods of decentralizing work with the power of the web. But whether the big corporations follow our lead or not, we guerilla web workers will still be out here on the fringes, happily being productive on our own terms.

Photo credit: Steve Woods via stock.xchng

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