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FEATURE

Working From Home Together

A look at how companies are using collaboration tools to connect home-based workers.

Kristi Essick
August 27 , 2012

Working from home has become the norm for many corporate employees. One in five employees worldwide ‘telecommute' on a regular basis. In the United States, more than 26 million people work from home on a regular basis, according to the Telework 2011 report . And even workers who spend the majority of their time in the office often check email and do work tasks from home – with 80% of employees completing company work on weekends and evenings.

The trend of allowing employees to work from home is accelerating. With high office real estate costs, employees tired of long commutes, and tough competition to attract skilled workers, companies have eagerly embraced telecommuting as a strategic tactic to keep employees happy and costs down.

"Home working started as an employee-led revolution, but companies have realized how much money it saves and that it helps with employee retention," said Thomas Vander Wal, Senior Consultant and Principal at research firm InfoCloud Solutions

Technology companies were the first to embrace teleworking, and Sun Microsystems in particular was an early leader in decentralizing the office, said Vander Wal, but the rise in homeworking has spread to all industries and even the government. When a few government agencies in Washington, D.C. recently gave employees the right to work from home two or three days a week, they found employees were more productive, more positive, and worked longer hours – spurring dozens of other government organizations to adopt the model, said Vander Wal.

With so many employees working remotely, companies face new challenges in getting distant teams to work collaboratively. Aside from relying on the "classic" collaboration tools of email, VPNs, web meetings such as WebEx, and enterprise collaboration suites such as Microsoft Sharepoint, companies are also now experimenting with social enterprise tools that leverage social networking features to encourage free-form collaboration between teams. Vander Wal reckons there are over 80 enterprise social tools on the market, including Jive, Yammer (acquired by Microsoft), and SocialCast.

"In the early 2000s, big enterprise systems like ERP and CRM became browser based, so it was common for home-working employees to log into a VPN, hop onto the company intranet, and use the apps they needed," said Vander Wal. But this model didn't invite collaboration, and most employees used – and still use – email to work on collaborative projects and share documents.

Enterprise social networks aim to capture the company watercooler and hallway conversations that happen within an office – and then make these interactions available to all employees on the network. But though creating a virtual gathering place seems like an ideal solution for bringing together remote employees, the reality is that many employees don't use them on a regular basis, or end up using specialized collaboration tools only within their working groups – such as Confluence for development teams or Salesforce.com's Chatter for sales teams.

One developer for a San Francisco software company who works from home two days a week admitted that he never checks the company's Yammer account. Instead, while working at home, he logs onto the company VPN and collaborates with colleagues over Confluence. He also relies on Skype, instant messaging, and email for collaboration with colleagues.

"The development team has no need for Yammer, because we have our own way of working over Confluence," he said.

Whether teams interact only with each other over specialized tools –or instead the entire company adopts a enterprise social network like Yammer or Jive – the goal is the same: to capture interaction in one place.

"For people who aren't working face-to-face, social collaboration tools don't just offer the opportunity to interact in real time, but also provide an entire history of that collaboration," said Vander Wal. "That means any employee, whether they're based in the office or are thousands of miles away, can pull up the entire social stream at any time to get up to speed."

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