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Remotely talented

Wed 1 Dec 2010
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Technology is making it possible for employees to work together in new ways. Often separated by geographic distances, but interacting as part of the local team, teleworkers are not new to the workforce, and many organisations have at least one staff member who works remotely part of the time. These same technologies are also enabling companies to retain talent that would otherwise leave the organisation due to geographic relocation or lifestyle changes. Our own company is an excellent example of this.Back in 1999, Denise Hansen and I co-founded Asnet Technologies as a reseller of unified communications equipment. In those days, it was simple; I worked from an office in Auckland, and Denise was available from her home office in Rotorua. Business was good and, as the company grew, more employees were added to provide support, sales and help with the overall management.Denise has been the prototype of a teleworker, working remotely for technology companies from the office in the basement of her home since 1995. When her husband retired in 2001 and wanted to see out his retirement from the beach in Papamoa outside Tauranga, Denise’s mobile-worker lifestyle made the transition easy. They found a house and arranged for high-speed internet access to be routed to the property, then away she went.Our business continued on and did well, experiencing organic growth and opening offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, swelling to 18 staff and expanding to provide videoconferencing services in addition to hardware.Like all growth-stage companies, employees are our greatest asset. In a company of our size, losing an employee is more than five percent of the workforce, and we do what’s needed to keep them wherever possible.In 2008, when our Product and Services Manager Corey McCarthy wanted to move from Wellington to Papamoa, as a lifestyle choice with his wife, we made the decision to retain him by establishing an official office location at the beach near Mount Maunganui, where Denise had resided for several years.It would be the consolidation of a long-time teleworker and an office worker into one new office location, opened specifically for two people. There was a need to put together a business case to ensure we had the financial justification. Denise and Corey scouted for a suitable location for an office of two people, and settled on a property just two blocks away from the surf on Domain Road in Papamoa. The place was ideal: a split-level house, with an apartment upstairs, and plenty of space below, which they could rent out.Two Frame Relays and two ISDN connections afforded adequate bandwidth for our videoconferencing system, enabling Corey and Denise to work seamlessly with our other offices, to hire out the videoconferencing facilities to other business, and to host customer meetings, as needed, from the location.Measuring the ReturnsIn terms of ROI, we’ve sold more technology with the location than we would have sold without it. The office was never designed to be a field sales location specifically targeting the Bay of Plenty, but it happens to have worked out that way. The real ROI for us is two very happy and productive employees. It was never an option to lose Corey or Denise, despite their transition; it was just a question of finding the right solution. Selling to customers requires a professional space in which to meet with them and demonstrate what our videoconferencing technology does. There’s also a need for real social interaction between employees – you can’t be locked in a box forever.Corey is often in a video conference with his six direct reports, located elsewhere, collaborating virtually throughout the day. It’s truly a virtual office. They are on camera with each other and interact through the screen as if they were in the same room. If they need privacy they can switch off the camera or mute the microphone.Replacing someone at Corey’s level would have required a detailed recruitment process, plus four to five months of training. It was a $50,000 to $60,000 cost we were looking at. Corey and Denise held critical knowledge of and familiarity with our technology and their customers, so much so that it made sense to open an office for the two of them instead of letting geography stand in the way.There needs to be an element of trust for teleworking to be successful. For those who can function well, with little or no supervision, it’s probably the preferred model in my opinion. We’re still increasing our use of videoconferencing. I work from Gulf Harbour in Whangaparaoa on occasion, as opposed to coming in to our office in central Auckland, and we have one dedicated teleworker from Paraparamu who’s been operating remotely for six years.

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