In 2015, Gallup conducted a poll and reported that 37% of the US workforce was telecommuting. Among the reasons employees like telecommuting are that it allows them more flexibility to balance life and work and it enables them to avoid painful commutes to the office.

Employers like the practice because it lets them reduce physical office space and the costs that go with it. Telecommuting also keeps their sales and service reps closer to locations where their customers are located and gives companies the latitude to use employees or contractors as telecommuters on an as-needed basis.

But there are also several gotchas when managing a remote workforce that can affect both internal personnel and the telecommuters themselves. Here are three fundamental issues that should be addressed.

Who should telecommute?

Trust, the ability to work with sensitive data, and the need to constantly interact with a department or team all enter into making the decision on who can telecommute and who can't--but that's not all.

Individuals must also be able to work well on their own. Some people can't do this because they need people around them to keep them focused and engaged.

Then, there is that group of workers who feel "left behind" because the jobs they do are not a good fit for telecommuting. I learned quickly as a manager that people in the left-behind group often become jealous of the employees who can telecommute. Initially, I (and other managers) tried to explain how some jobs worked for telecommuting and others didn't--but this did little to dispel the resentment in employees who weren't thinking about the problem as a manager would.

I can't really say that we totally solved this people issue. But what we did do was take a list of employees who were interested in telecommuting. When a telecommuting job opened up, we gave them first crack at interviewing for it.

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How do you run your staff?

Sales and customer service reps are well suited for telecommuting because it is their job to be out with the customers. If they can be nearby in a home office, that certainly helps. However, once you have home-based your sales and service forces, you face new issues as a manager. You have to keep your staff focused on the overall strategic goals of the company and for your part of the business. Having conference calls helps, but it is not a cure-all.

An associate of mine who was in the telecommunications industry said it best:

"I found that over time, my sales reps became more and more isolated," he said. "In fact, they were beginning to act like lone rangers who patrolled their own sales territories and made sales--but they were forgetting about how these sales fit in with some of our goals as a staff and as a company. Ultimately, I decided to have quarterly meetings, where we brought everyone into headquarters so they could get reacquainted with each other and with our mission and goals. What I learned from this was that my reps were not only better connected to our goals, but they were better connected to each other. They began to collaborate more, and this helped sales."

How do you measure productivity?

It's easy to determine whether your remote salesforce is producing results because you see this in revenues--but what about the more under-the-radar functions, like customer service or a home-based worker who is processing loans?

When I was in banking and we first placed service reps and loan processors in the field, we had to answer these questions-and make sure that staff understood how they would be evaluated for their home office performances.

For service, we looked at call logs and used metrics such as how many issues were resolved on the first service call or visit. We also looked at customer satisfaction ratings, and we looked at the service call queue to confirm that it was being worked through at an acceptable rate.

For remote workers who were processing loans, we looked at both processing volumes and processing quality. In other words, how many loans were processed per day and how many of these loans had to be reworked because of some mistake?

In both cases, we began by taking benchmarks on the productivity rates for these functions that were being achieved by onsite employees. The initial goal was that remote workers had to at least meet these onsite productivity rates if telecommuting was to be called a success.

Wrap up

Telecommuting first began taking off in the early 2000s. What companies and employees know now is that telecommuting really can work, as long as the people, operations, and strategic issues are addressed proactively. This is where most companies find themselves today with their telecommuting practices--and why telecommuting can work well if you take the proper steps.