Should your employees work from home?

A quick primer on getting started.

When it comes to the decision of letting employees work from home, the benefits — and risks — are clear. Cloud-based project management software and real-time chat services make telecommuting a viable option for many business owners. You can both experience expansion without the expense, and foster happier employees. And of course, it’s a nice perk to attract and retain the best workers.

Still, employers should think carefully before issuing a few laptops and sending employees off to work from the couch. Management can be challenging in the absence of face-to-face communication, and technical support becomes harder for remote workers, as does managing the equipment they use. Lastly, not all employees can work successfully from the relaxed, distraction-rich environment of their own homes.

If you’re considering making this move, a pilot program is a good way to begin. This lets you identify and address the problem areas as you go without making a huge commitment. Over a short time you’ll have a good idea if a remote working arrangement is viable for your business.

Picking the right employees

A work-form-home arrangement is not for everyone. Spend time determining the criteria you’ll use to identify likely candidates for your pilot program. Past performance, position and network access requirements are all important factors. The list of criteria you come up with will be unique to your business and, with some careful consideration, will clearly identify who should and shouldn’t be given this initial trial. Just remember what Yung Trang, president of the daily deal website TechBargains, recently told Entrepreneur: “Working from home is a privilege, not a right.”

Supplying a home office

There are many options here from letting the employee use his or her own hardware, broadband and software to supplying and all of that for them. Technical support and security procedures should also be considered. You need to create a document that spells out each of these decisions and the people responsible. In this document, detail technical support procedures, employee responsibilities for provided equipment and the handling of home office expenses.

Communication

Contemporary cloud-based services make it easy to keep in touch with remote workers. Identifying the tools you’re going to use and ensuring that all parties are trained in their operation is crucial to staying on top of a worker’s productivity. Additionally, real time chat and face-to-face calls via services like Skype or GoToMeeting help workers feel a part of the work culture.

While developing your pilot program, consider how remote workers will access the network and what level of access they’ll need. Additionally, detail how they’ll “check in” with supervisors to report progress, and remain available during established work hours.

How will success be defined?

Lastly, you must formally define what a successful trial period will look like. Is it a maintenance of or increase in productivity? A reduction of costs or successful communication?

Telecommuting is still being defined, and with careful planning, can be a boon for many businesses. In 2014, China’s largest travel agency Ctrip conducted an experiment. Half of 250 volunteers were chosen to work from home, while the rest worked from the office over a nine-month period.

The trail produced benefits and downsides. That at-home group was shown to work an average of 9.5 percent longer than their office-bound colleagues. Additionally, 13 percent were deemed more productive and half as likely to quit.

The downsides included loneliness and a fear of being passed over for promotions. At the end of the nine months, half of the at-home group asked to return to the office, citing loneliness and fear of being forgotten about during discussions of career advancement.

This study suggests that a combination of time spent at home and at the office may be the sweet spot, and that’s a great place to start in your pilot program. Once the technicalities have been defined and documented, identify the right candidates and implement the program.

Good luck.