Counselor

How To Create a Virtual Office

Kevin Shea is the inside sales team manager at SanMar.

Research suggests as many as 30% of American workers now telecommute – a monumental jump compared to just a decade ago. Studies show people who work from home are happier, more efficient and actually put in longer hours than employees who are strictly in the office.

Increasingly, companies are offering a work option that goes beyond occasional telecommuting. Firms from Github to JetBlue to industry supplier SanMar (asi/84863) have created systems to let employees work entirely from home. “For SanMar, our work-at-home program allows us to have the size of staff without needing the office space to support that staff,” says Kevin Shea, manager of the supplier’s inside sales team.

Read Shea’s advice for developing a work-at-home program.

Q: Why did SanMar start a work-at-home program?
A:
We launched the at-home program in 2005. It allowed us to employ the number of staff we felt we needed to service our customers without expanding our physical office space. It allowed our employees more time to relax with their families instead of commuting, while also saving money on gas and keeping cars off the road. We viewed it as a win-win at launch and are still quite pleased with the success of this program.

Q: How many employees now take part in the program?
A:
Over 350 employees take part in our at-home program and almost all of them exclusively work from home.

Q: What types of jobs are included in the program?
A:
Every role within our inside sales department has the opportunity to work from home at least a portion of the time. We also have credit team members working primarily from home. Other departments can opt to allow staff to work from home, as needed.

Q: What are the benefits?
A:
We can bring on employees across the country with different backgrounds and unique perspectives. Also, in times of inclement weather, we are well prepared to meet our customers’ needs. Employees also find it is a tremendous benefit in getting time back with their family. This translates to them being even more invested in their career.

Q: What are the greatest program challenges?
A:
Reliable high-speed Internet was an issue at first. We have worked with our Internet provider to ensure that our speeds are now at the level necessary to run our business.

Q: How do managers know if at-home employees are working as they should?
A:
We use tools and technologies like instant messenger, emails and videos to keep in touch with our at-home employees.

Q: What technology does SanMar use to help workers be more productive at home?
A:
Webcams allow us to stay connected and not just be a voice on the other end but also visually connect with each other every day.  Instant messenger allows our employees to get quick answers to things they need assistance with as well as stay connected to their teams. Dual monitors provide the ability to multitask more efficiently.

Q: Does the technology and software strengthen training, too?
A:
By adding webcams and supporting technology to allow for Web conferencing, our training is much more interactive. Having the visual as well as the audio has gone a long way in our ability to better connect with each other while conducting training.

Q: Are there specific ways SanMar uses the program to recruit talent?
A:
Our work-from-home program is open to anyone living in a state where SanMar operates and has a warehouse. This has allowed us to recruit from different markets that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

Q: What policies are in place for at-home employees?
A: We have the same policies and expectations in place for those working at home that we have for employees here working on site.

Q: What advice do you have for companies considering virtual office programs?
A: Make sure employees have the equipment needed to do their jobs, the resources and training materials available to them on the Web, and the support structure to know where to turn for help when needed.