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The Rise of the Home-based Workforce: Lessons to Manage and Motivate Remotely

The use of home-based workforces are on the rise, but they need to be managed is specific ways if they are to be effective.

In an economy characterized by high unemployment, low consumer confidence and reduced corporate spending, everyone knows that jobs are hard to come by. Yet, in the midst of this turmoil is an interesting counter-trend marked by a growing workforce of home-based employees across the country.

Recent moves by the FCC to bring high-speed Internet access to an estimated 18 million Americans who still don’t have it, put a new spotlight on a growing trend toward the viability of work-from-home careers. In fact, The FCC estimates that expanding high-speed Internet alone will create roughly 500,000 jobs in six years. This is only a fraction of an overwhelming trend toward a home-based workforce.

There are now more than 26 million home-based workers in the United States, according to Telework 2011, and estimates suggest that that number will grow during the next decade. Case in point, more than half of the hiring managers at Fortune 500 companies now believe the virtual workforce will steadily or greatly increase at their companies, according to a survey by WorkSimple.

The work-from-home model offers companies the ability to source talent from a much different group of applicants and find people with specialized qualifications such as professional licenses and certifications, technical knowledge, management experience, and selling skills. This is advantageous since there is a sizeable workforce that prefers or needs to work from home, and the potential for companies in this employee pool has been barely tapped.

Why? One reason may be that many companies see a home-based workforce as just a means to cut costs. For example, when the home agent model in the customer service industry first emerged, many saw it primarily as a way to cut facility expenses. Such savings are real, but Convergys’ experience in managing home agent programs for its clients has shown there is a bigger picture to be seen. Companies that have implemented a home agent workforce have seen reduced absenteeism, declines in attrition, and increased productivity. With the ability to adjust this workforce to fluctuating workloads and business demands, companies have had fewer employees actually handle a higher workload, and with declines in agent attrition they have avoided the high cost of recruiting and training replacements.

Still, when companies consider adapting their business for a home-based workforce they are often intimidated by the complexity of establishing, managing, motivating and growing a successful workforce of remote employees.

Following are some leadership guidelines for shifting out of that thinking and considering a home-based workforce model:

  • Don’t Expect the Impossible – Your best employee can suddenly become your worst, if you expect the transition to home-based work to be intuitive and seamless. Convergys manages more than 3,000 home-based workers and we are growing this number by 20 percent each year, which gives us a unique window into what generally works and what doesn’t. Working from home means more than just plugging in the laptop and logging into e-mail. There’s an entire lifestyle and cultural change that goes along with the transition, and companies need to train their employees on how to stay connected to their colleagues, be accountable, continue to collaborate, and remain engaged participants in the company.
  • Understand the Nuances of Managing Remotely – Managing people in face-to-face situations can be challenging enough, so managing people remotely adds additional factors to consider. Managers need to understand that they can no longer rely on body language and in-person meetings, but now have to master a range of nuances to get their point across. In a digital age, employees are almost always multi-tasking, and may only be half-listening during a meeting or conversation. Good managers need to pick up on these slight distinctions in order to get their point across, which often means learning how to listen, asking open-ended questions, and being clear about goals and specific work tasks.
  • Know the Benefits (and Limits) of Technology – Technology keeps us connected 24/7 and information today is more accessible and secure than ever before. However, companies need to understand that technology is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to managing a remote workforce. Technology should be used to collaborate and share information – and empower employees to stay connected with their colleagues. Employees shouldn’t feel they are constantly under surveillance, or that their work is being monitored. Instead, managers should consider technology as a collaboration tool to motivate and inspire.

The next time a discussion about the remote workforce arises, consider this: the home-based workforce model can open the door to an extended candidate pool that is educated and dedicated, happy in their work and capable of performing at a high level. Can you afford to miss out on this gold mine of talent?

Ten years ago, the idea of working from home was a novelty. Today it’s becoming more common. Companies that spot this trend, prepare for it, and lead the charge – either on their own or with an outsourcing partner – stand to reap great benefits by staying in step with our evolving workplace and workforce. Don’t get left behind.

About Rick Owens

Rick Owens is a senior director at Convergys Corporation (NYSE: CVG), responsible for the company’s Home Agent Solutions.