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DIGITAL MANAGER

8.5.99  
Do Right By Your Telecommuters — Pay for their Equipment
It makes business sense, and the goodwill is priceless

Ya gotta love telecommuting. Your employees think it's great because they can work in their bunny slippers. Best of all, they've got home PCs and such, so you don't have to buy them equipment. Right? Wrong. Telecommuting raises a host of logistical, financial, and trust issues. Each company tackles them in its own way. The experts are unanimous on this one, though: The boss should foot the bill for PCs, printers, modems, fax machines, and any other electronics your staff needs to work.

If you've been coasting on your secretary's equipment, that may be tough to swallow. The bottom line is this: Telecommuters save you money. An employee working at home one or two days a week can save a company between $6,000 and $12,000 per year. How? They're more productive, less likely to quit, and need less office space, according to figures compiled by telecommuting expert Jack Nilles from such clients as IBM, AT&T, and the City of Los Angeles. You'll recoup the expenditure in short order, by that calculation. "It's hard to find investments that pay back in less than a year," says Nilles. And the equipment probably will cost less than you fear with discounts for volume purchases.

Still need convincing? Here are three more reasons why parsimony doesn't pay in this area.

  • Control. You can't restrict what telecommuters do with their equipment. "But if you own it, you have a legal right to tell them how to use it," says Nilles. Company business only, for example. That discourages moonlighting on your time and cuts the chances that an employee's kid will download a game or E-mail with viruses and infect your company's system.
  • Support. Keeping everyone operating is much easier with only one make of computer. "You don't have to bring your IT organization up to speed on every flavor, variant, and version of hardware and software that ever existed -- all you need to know is the standard stock, and away you go," says Jim Miller, general manager of extended workplace solutions for U S West.
  • Morale. The investment makes telecommuters feel valued -- no small matter when you don't see the boss every day. And keeping them happy is especially important with jobs so hard to fill these days, notes Gil Gordon, a top telecommuting consultant. If staffers work at home irregularly, buy some loaner laptops for their use. If you still insist on having workers pitch in with the cost, help them pay for it with an interest-free loan or payroll-deduction program.
You can turn your investment into an incentive. HotOffice Technologies Inc., a Web-based intranet service for small businesses based in Boca Raton, Fla., doesn't hesitate to pay for its telecommuters' computers. "If you look at the expense, vs. what you're getting in added productivity, it's a simple decision," says Michael Franz, chairman and CEO. The company goes a step further with part of its software-development staff: If employees consistently put in extra evening and weekend hours over a year, they keep their high-end notebooks. "We need people to work 55, 60, 65 hours a week. But it's not fair to say, 'We expect you to be in the office that time,'" says Franz. "This way, they get to break, go home, see their family, have dinner, put the kids to bed -- and then pound away into the night." Franz hopes that the incentive will make after-hours work "part of the norm" for the company.

Convinced yet? Assuming you are, here are some important issues to consider when buying equipment for telecommuters:

  • Mobility. Laptops with docking stations at home and office are an increasingly popular choice for companies. They assure the staffer always has access to material on his or her hard drive. The combined cost is not much more than two desktop PCs.
  • Power. Buy a computer "near the top of the line, so it will be good for two to three years," suggests Nilles.
  • Security. Worried about confidential information walking out of the office on laptop hard drives or leaking out through off-site computers? Low-cost encryption software can restrict file access to employees with the password. Firewalls with different levels of security can restrict who has access to various parts of your intranet. If you need high security, you can use network computer devices with hard drives that aren't large enough to store data. Employees work from a remote location via modem, and save the information on the office server, not the laptop. "You can't stop what resides in their head, but you can stop what resides on the computer," says Miller. As a general rule, only let your most trustworthy employees telecommute.
  • Insurance. Confirm that your insurance policies cover your employee's home office. The employee may have to get a supplemental policy, which you should pay for. Theft, by the way, isn't a big problem, says Gordon: "In 17 years, I've never heard of a telecommuter's computer being stolen."
  • Agreements. Spell out your equipment policies clearly in a formal contract and have employees sign it. You might include prohibiting family members from using the equipment and the downloading of material from the Web other than for company business. The contract could also address such areas as confidentiality, telephone reimbursement, return of equipment upon termination, and work-area safety. (An example of a generic agreement is available on Gordon's telecommuting Web site: www.gilgordon.com/downloads/agreement.txt). OK, you're ready to go out and buy equipment for your telecommuters. What about employees who've been working on their own equipment? Assuming that their machines are suitable, you can reimburse them for part of the cost, upgrade some of their PCs' features, or promise them a new setup when you upgrade the office again. Feel a pinch in your wallet? Ignore it. The goodwill you'll gain is priceless.


    By Meg Lundstrom in New York

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