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Employing the Best People—From Afar

March 1, 1997
Related Topics: Contingent Staffing, Telecommuting, Featured Article
You've been looking for someone to fill a key marketing position within your organization for several months, but have been unsuccessful. You can't pay enough to attract candidates from larger geographic areas, and your area simply doesn't seem to have the caliber of employee you're looking for.

Or, you're the human resources manager of a company in America's farm belt and continually have trouble filling some of the high-tech slots in your firm.

Or, you've been trying to recruit a top-notch candidate from the West Coast to relocate to your East Coast office, but the person won't budge.

No matter-because where a worker lives makes virtually no difference anymore. In a tensely competitive business world, the important success factor is brain power. And if the people behind that brain power aren't located near your company's business offices and can't-or don't want to-come into the office every day, that's OK. What's important is finding the best people to work for your company.

What's happening is that the idea of telecommuting, which many companies have successfully been experimenting with over the past several years, has by and large been working. It has allowed firms' existing workforces the option of not coming into the office every day. Most often, telecommuting has been more on the level of offering workers more flexibility in their work schedules.

But more recently, the idea of distant staffing has expanded telecommuting further by giving employers the option of recruiting and hiring new employees who may rarely or never set foot in a company's headquarters. What was once just an employee benefit, telecommuting-or employing people who live in distant locations-is also a big company benefit and employment tool. It's a radical change from the staffing norm, but one that's allowing companies to hire the best people for jobs-even if they're working from afar.

There are benefits and drivers behind distant staffing. Distant staffing benefits to employees are clear. They get the convenience of working from home-or virtually anywhere-which allows them to prevent relocating, a costly proposition both for new workers and for organizations that pay for relocation expenses. And it provides new employees with more flexibility in handling personal commitments, such as not having to transfer children to new schools, relocate aging parents or leave education commitments mid-stream.

But there are strong drivers for employers as well. Originally, the impetus behind many companies' moves to implement telecommuting programs was the Clean Air Act (which generally applies to companies with 100 employees or more) and the need to comply with its restrictions. Coupled with this has been the growing number of employees who've demanded more flexible work options. For example, sales people can live near their territories rather than having to live near company headquarters and having to travel more than they otherwise would, just to put in face time.

And, communication technology has made it increasingly immaterial whether an employee is located down the hall, across town or across the country. New communication options make it possible for employers to avail themselves of a talented pool of qualified workers that isn't restricted by geographic boundaries.

Communication technology has made it immaterial whether an employee is located down the hall or across the country.

Perhaps the most stinging reason for organizations to consider distant staffing is that many companies have caused the erosion of corporate loyalty through massive layoffs and downsizings. Employees have become distrustful of moving cross-country for a new job, which they might be fired from, laid off from or downsized out of a few months later.

In addition, having offsite workers can save organizations money on office equipment and office space, because many telecommuters already have much of their own office equipment. And the hiring company doesn't have to pay for relocation costs.

Jack Nilles, who coined the terms telecommuting and teleworking in 1973, says the net benefit to employers of having people work offsite can be calculated in terms of reduced turnover rates and reduced demand for expensive office space -ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 per year, per telecommuter. Nilles founded the management consulting firm, JALA International Inc. in 1980 and has developed or evaluated telecommuting projects for a variety of Fortune 100 companies and government agencies in the United States, Europe and South America.

Nilles defines telecommuting as "moving the work to the worker" and points out that, generally, telecommuters are employees of a given organization, but not always. The term telecommuter can apply to workers who are independent contractors or those who do free-lance work, so you must be careful in setting up distant-staffing relationships. (Please see the end of this article to get more information on the differences between telecommuters and independent contractors.)

Given all of these drivers and company benefits, then, why aren't we seeing more ads in local papers recruiting employees as virtual staff members for companies throughout the nation-or even the world?

The biggest problem for employers is trust. The greatest obstacle to telecommuting in the past, and now to the greater challenge of distant staffing, isn't technology. It isn't cost. It isn't lack of demand. What it boils down to, simply, is trust.

Even though many employers see telecommuting today as old hat, there are still a large number of organizations that are hesitant to try it. "The biggest concern that many managers have, although they don't often express it, is the matter of trust and control," says Gil Gordon, of Gil Gordon Associates, a firm that specializes in helping private- and public-sector firms establish successful telecommuting or distant-staffing programs-"[It's] the belief that people won't work unless they're watched." But, he points out, "[Although] that may have been true on farms and in factories, I'm not sure it's still true in the office today."

Nilles also says he believes the issue of trust is a primary barrier to the widespread use of telecommuting. "Managers' first question, invariably, is: 'How do I know they're working if I can't see them?' The answer is: You have to develop bonds of trust between you and your employees. It seems to me that the fundamental task for personnel managers is to realize that this is the primary issue. It's not technology. It's getting over these psychological barriers," he says.

Nilles points out that, "For some 60 percent of the workforce, location isn't critical to performing their jobs." In fact, according to IDC/Link Resources in New York City, there are approximately eight million Americans telecommuting now, and that number is growing by nearly 20 percent a year.

Linda Brubaker is one of them. She lives in Illinois, but she works with companies as far away as California doing personnel work that ranges from reference checking and interviewing to policy development. She admits that trust is an issue. "There's a lot of hesitancy for [companies] to do this because it's [relatively] new and it's scary. You don't know what you're getting. But, when you're hiring a skill and a personality-because that's really what you're doing-those people exist everywhere. So you find the people who can do the job."

The bottom line, according to Brubaker, is: "You don't have to be in face-to-face contact to assure the job is getting done. You can allow people to use the resources they have available in their worldwide communities to provide you with resources you couldn't get in your own home town."

People like Brubaker-consultants, writers, programmers-have been practicing telecommuting for a number of years and they don't view it as anything particularly unusual. Although Brubaker and scores of virtual employees like her consider telecommuting a viable work option, and an increasing number of businesses are making arrangements with existing employees to allow them to work from home, it's still relatively rare to find companies that are hiring and employing people "from afar" to work on a virtual-office basis.

Nilles outlines two situations in which companies will hire new employees for specific jobs as telecommuters:

  1. When a company has already established a fairly objective means of judging employee performance.
  2. When a company is looking for specific expertise that simply isn't available at the company or locally.

"Changing the basic paradigm for work isn't something that takes place overnight," Nilles cautions. But he points out that the workplace is now experiencing "greater independence on the part of employees and greater demand for minimizing cost on the part of employers. Telework just fits in beautifully in both those situations."

Considerations you should think about. The desire to hire a particular individual is one impetus behind telecommuting or distant-staffing arrangements. Practicality is often another.

Infiltrator Systems Inc. of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, although not heavily involved with communication technology, is still well ahead of the curve when it comes to the virtual employment relationship. The company manufactures a line of high-density polyethylene chambers that are used in wastewater and storm water applications. Because Infiltrator Systems uses plastics in the manufacturing of its product, and because the market for plastics is geographically diverse, Peter Firla, director of human resources says, "We like to have plastics buyers located locally to where the action is." That means in cities like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Houston and Los Angeles.

Budgetary restraints are another practical concern that can push companies toward considering distant staffing as a staffing option. As Rich points out: "Our company, like many others, has a lot of cost issues. Managers would much rather spend their money on people than on brick and mortar. They see the relationship that one less facility equals a certain number of additional people that could be hired."

Rich suggests asking a number of questions to help determine whether a virtual office arrangement could work for your firm. Can employees work as effectively from home as they could in the office next to you? Can you communicate with them easily? Do they know where to go with questions? Can they be kept up-to-date? Once you've answered these questions, you should help your company develop a new work paradigm that allows distant staffing to work and blossom.

Making distant staffing work. Because communication is a key to making a distant employment relationship work, it may come as no surprise that firms that are heavily reliant on communication technology are leading this trend-companies like Arden Hills, Minnesota-based Control Data and Northern Telecom.

Control Data, which specializes in designing and building network-based messaging solutions, has been involved in a work from home program for two years. And the terminology is important: "work from" home rather than "work at" home. "We don't have the same lack of socialization issues that you have when people are working five days a week at home. Employees still work with peer groups and project teams and still have interaction with our customers," says Control Data's Ruth Rich, vice president of HR and administration.

Northern Telecom is another example of a company that has embraced the concept of distant staffing. In 1994 the company, which designs, builds and integrates digital networks for many applications, wanted to hire William Holtz as vice president for global enterprise services, but he refused to leave Philadelphia to go to the Nashville, Tennessee-based service operation. Instead, Holtz and Northern Telecom reached an agreement that allows him to work from home, an arrangement he still maintains today and one that involves managing a staff of approximately 2,000 people.

According to Glenn Lovelace, director of telecommuting for Northern Telecom, Holtz tops the list of high-profile telecommuters as identified in the book "Telecommuting," by June Langhoff (© 1995, Aegis Publishing). Lovelace says Holtz is able to interact with his staff through "some very high-speed data links into his house for videoconferencing. He has a tremendous amount of technology at his fingertips."

Since being hired, Holtz has hired several other telecommuters to work in his group.The arrangement is working well for all concerned.

Finding virtual employees with the right characteristics is key. Once you've decided that it's good to open up the search to candidates in faraway places, the next step is finding exactly the right person for the job. Surprisingly enough, recruiting isn't considered to be a major hurdle.

In fact, Katie Adams, director of human resources for Control Data asserts that: "It's almost easier to recruit if you don't have any geographic boundaries. If we don't need an employee to be [at our headquarters] it gives us the capability to really look for outstanding talent. It gives us a higher degree of flexibility." Rich adds that, when considering the elements that are critical to a successful virtual-employment relationship, "Communication, tools, management, the flexibility and self-initiative of people are the things I would put higher on the list than recruiting." By this, Rich means that how she finds someone isn't as important as whom she finds. Although recruiting the right people is always a difficult and important task, the best long-term strategy is focusing on employing people with the right skills and the right characteristics to make the distant-employment relationship work, regardless of how you find them to begin with.

Firla agrees. He makes the point that the hiring process for remote workers isn't unlike the process used to fill any vacant position. The difference lies in the qualities these remote workers must have. "You need people who are intensely independent and inherently self-motivated," Firla says. "They don't get any supervision, so I'm looking for people who are looking for a ball to pick up that they can run with, rather than people who need to be shown where the gold mine is and how to get there."

So how does he find the people with these characteristics? He places ads in local newspapers across the country, then does initial screening by phone. Afterward, a hiring manager does a follow-up phone interview. Lastly, the company brings the candidate in for a personal visit. Firla points out that he has never seen a candidate get to this stage and not receive an offer of employment. In addition, Infiltrator Systems does extensive reference checking and uses a personality profile, "not as a substitute for a good interview or selection process, but as a reaffirmation," says Firla.

Gordon also suggests that traits like self-motivation, self-discipline, good job knowledge and a demonstrated ability to meet deadlines are critical. "Telecommuters are entrepreneurs. It's as close as you come to being your own boss without going into your own business."

Rich mentions another critical trait: being "electronically capable." At Control Data, virtually all communications are handled electronically, including time cards and expense reports.

"I've never thought of what we do as being exceptional or unique," Firla says. "We more or less have a 'get it done' mentality here. We're more interested in how to do something than why we can't. I simply have to come up with the people. Period." In fact, when Firla points out that, "It comes down to enlightened hiring decisions, getting a close match between what is needed for a position and the attributes of the person"; it turns out that these are the criteria most employers use when determining traditional employer/ employee relationships, too.

The distant staffing horizon looks bright. The difficulty in hiring from afar, Gordon points out, is that work habits that are critical to whatever position you're filling don't always come through on the resume or even during the interview. "The manager who hires from a distance is perhaps taking a bigger risk than he or she might be comfortable with."

But, is that risk really that much greater than in the traditional hiring process, or is it more a matter of perception? For telecommuting and distant staffing to become more the norm and less of an anomaly will require that team leaders, project managers or supervisors "really understand that they're hiring people for their brains and not for their ability to bring their bodies to the office every day," says Gordon.

The future, according to Gordon, is anybody's guess. "I've always felt that telecommuting is a staffing option that belongs in the tool kit of any smart organization and that it will be used depending on the need, the vision, the nature of the work and the workforce [culture]." He says the key points to remember are:

  • Telecommuting is an option-not a revolution. "We're not talking about emptying out every office building on the face of the earth."
  • Telecommuting isn't just an employee perk. It should be looked on as a solution to a business problem.

We're beyond the experimental stage. "This is no longer new," Gordon says. "It's no longer risky. We know how to make it work. The companies that are waiting on the sidelines for everybody else to try it may just get passed by on this one. There is virtually nothing about telecommuting that can be raised as a question or objection that hasn't already been answered."

Adds Nilles: "As personnel managers become viewed in more innovative companies as profitability centers rather than cost centers, telecommuting will become more accepted. If my job as a personnel manager is to have the best possible employees, and I can demonstrate that telecommuting makes this happen, then the [corporate] attitude [must] shift."

Distant staffers themselves may also become a driving force behind any future mainstreaming of this concept. Brubaker asserts that: "We're the pioneers; we have to sell it to the companies. One way we sell it is by demonstrating that we're accessible. But, more importantly, [we sell it] by demonstrating we can provide them with resources they might not be able to get any other way.

"We bring resources that are available in a much broader community and we bring dedicated expertise that we've gained through years of experience. They can take advantage of the training and experience we're gaining at other companies and make it their own," she says.

Although distant staffers will be one force driving the use of telecommuting, the biggest will be the HR community. Once HR professionals understand the benefits of employing people who don't necessarily live next door, they'll be able to bring that vision to their organizations.

The benefits of distant staffing as an employment option are obvious. Just as obvious is the fact that today's employees are beginning to demand more flexibility in their work arrangements. Companies, in turn, are faced with fewer qualified workers and growing costs of doing business. The needs of both employees and employers can be met through distant staffing. What's required is a shift in thinking, a less time-driven view of employee performance and the understanding that out of sight is no longer out of mind.

Workforce, March 1997, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 30-38.

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