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Posted on Thu, Sep 23, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Extend your opportunities with a flexible workforce

By Dianne Marsh

Does your team work in one location, all of the time? You may be missing opportunities to strengthen relationships with clients and to extend your geographic reach. You may also be ignoring the creativity of your employees and sacrificing innovation.

Years ago, employees worked under one roof, perhaps as a division, but accessible to one another by proximity. Cubes lined the walls. While this configuration exists today, some companies have adopted new ways to work together. Beyond an open floor plan, companies like ours are discovering that the key to company culture is in recognizing the uniqueness of individuals, and finding the formula that makes their workday productive. Sometimes it's quirky. In our case, we have some developers who prefer to work while standing. Their desk configurations, built from off-the-shelf parts, support this, but the real most important factor was in creating a culture where they knew that this would not only be accepted, but embraced.

Similar to our experience with the standup desks, your employees may have unique suggestions that create a greater sense of camaraderie and effectiveness. As another example, one of our developers suggested rotating the group of people in each office, every few months, so that everyone has a chance to work together. We've been doing this for 2.5 years now. This has fostered communication and collaboration. With a little space and furniture planning, we've reduced the move to 30-60 minutes.

Fluidity and openness in the space doesn't help if people won't talk to each other. Sure, some of that is personality. But more of it is a result of managerial choices. Even in today's economy, knowledge workers often have other options to meet their basic employment needs. And your best employees certainly do. What keeps them coming back is knowing that their contributions are valued, that their voices are being heard, and that things change as result of both.

You may have witnessed apparent chaos in companies that have no walls at all. It can be loud, even distracting. So what's the happy medium? It's different for every company, but we find that when we have four people in a room, with desks open to one another, conversations occur more naturally and distractions are minimized.

Let's say you have an open floor plan, and people are conversing when they're in the office, but not everyone can be in the office every day. Perhaps there's a really great job candidate whose home is just outside of a reasonable commute. Maybe she can make it to the office once a week or so, but if it has to be every day, you know that it won't work out. Extend your geographic reach by offering a telecommuting option. We have a few people who telecommute three to four days each week, and others who work from home once a week.

If communication is important, and if cubicles are bad, telecommuting must be worse, right? Not necessarily. Technology can simulate the environment of two people in the same room. Through effective use of standard communication tools such as instant messenger, email, phone, shared documents and desktops, and a web-enabled back office, your employees can work effectively from home.

If you start with the right culture, and add the right tools, telecommuting can be a great success. Here are a few telecommuting tools you may have overlooked.

Skype: For calls, particularly outside the US, Skype offers a cost-effective solution that melds phone calls and chat. Both computer-to-computer and computer-to-phone are now supported. Some carriers even support Skype mobile.

GoToMeeting: For sharing screens and remote presentations, products like GoToMeeting are ideal. We have used our subscription in a variety of situations with customers, near and far, large and small. Providing a dial-up line for conference calls doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, we prefer this free service because it doesn't require one person to start the call while everyone else waits on the line. This tends to minimize wasted time.

Google Apps for Business: Google's web-based office tool supports a remote workforce in a variety of ways. For features such as email, calendars, instant messaging, and document collaboration, we make extensive use of Google Apps for Business. Documents are securely shared within your domain, and warning are issued if you attempt to share with outsiders.

Of course, none of these solutions is really used in isolation. It's the combination of these tools and techniques, and dedication to keeping the lines of communication open that drive the success of a remote workforce.

The rewards to being flexible in your workplace are significant. In addition to limiting travel expenses and lowering infrastructure costs (office space), telecommuting offers other advantages. By tapping people outside of your geographic region, you can hire for necessary skills rather than filtering first by where that person lives. And, when someone has obligations at home, those can be accommodated without losing a full day of that person's time.

By being flexible about where and how your employees work, you can tap a larger candidate pool and a larger customer base. With technology bridging the gap, your company's effectiveness will not only improve, but often flourish as you explore various options for working together.