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One of the conclusions drawn from the Pratt study of home-based businesses commissioned by the SBA’s Office of Advocacy (Home-Based Business: The Hidden Economy, 1999) was that one of the factors indicative of the potential success of a home-based business was whether or not that business hired staff.
On first glance, that particular characteristic of a business may seem irrelevant. If you have a marketable product that you pitch shrewdly and efficiently so that you get a steady stream of acquired and retained customers, your business ought to be successful. What does hiring staff have to do with keeping the business afloat?
But that attitude neglects a number of facets of basic human nature. Business owners with employees tend to feel that additional responsibility keenly. It has been repeatedly established in study after study that small business operators with employees are less likely to shut down those businesses, even when they are having serious problems with the enterprise. They feel responsible for the livelihood of the people they have hired, and will work that much harder to solve their business problems rather than simply closing their doors.
Also, a business owner who hires employees is much more likely to be operating that business in search of their primary source of income. As a primary source of income, they will work the business all year long, on a full-time basis that averages at 38 hours per week. When you work your business as if it were a business and not a hobby — all day, all year, every year — you improve its chances of success.
And businesses with employees are also — whether coincidentally or not — more likely to seek larger amounts of additional capital to leverage into significant business growth, also adding to the probable longevity of their business.
Willingness to grow is important to the life span of a business; it is a basic axiom of traditional business thinking that if a business is not allowed to grow, it will stagnate and die. Whether that truism is still applicable in a new economic order that includes a proliferation of micro enterprises (which are, themselves, a sort of mish-mash of business and independent contracting) remains to be seen. But, whether that proves true or not, the statistics seem to indicate that women who run home-based businesses cannot allow their desire to work from home to interfere with the growth of their businesses if they want those businesses to be ultimately successful.
One of the things that may seem to get in the way here is your local zoning ordinance. In most places, even if home-based businesses are entirely legal and even encouraged, the number of employees permitted on-site is strictly limited. In Sidney, New York, where Wahmpreneur News Magazine is located, the local zoning laws are very home business friendly. Not only are these enterprises permitted, limited customer traffic and business signs are permitted within certain parameters that are very liberal when compared to other places in the country. But even here, the one thing you are not permitted to do is to hire people to work for your home-based business if they are not immediate family members who already live there.
It seems like a terrible catch-22. Your chances for the success of your business are significantly improved when you hire employees but the local zoning laws won’t let you.
Fortunately, home-based businesses now have the technology available to both obey those zoning laws and still hire employees. We have the option of using telecommuters.
Of course, when you do this, you will need to be careful. Many of the women who operate home-based business have little management experience of any kind and certainly little experience in managing human resources. So, in addition to figuring out how to vet remote employees, you will have to learn how to manage personnel in general.
In reality, the best way to do that is to start your adventure in human resource management by hiring someone to work on-site, according to Gil Gordon of Gil Gordon Associates, an expert in the area of telecommuting, telework and alternative officing.
“Your first plunge into managing personnel should not be in a telecommuting situation,” says Gordon. “When you hire your first employee, there are all kinds of things you’re discovering about what it’s like to manage personnel, about what personality types you work with best and about your own management style. That’s not really the time to add the special issues of managing remote employees to the mix.”
Much better, according to Gordon, to begin with someone local to come into your home-office, perhaps on a part time basis. Another possible compromise for your home-business that would give you a bit of experience of what it might be like to direct a work force would be to use independent contractors and/or virtual assistants before you go with hiring staff.
It’s particularly helpful, when you’re ready to begin staffing your business, to have a good understanding of your own personnel management style. Just cast your mind back over some of the supervisors you’ve had in the past, and it will probably be very easy to see how many different ways a boss can deal with managing people. Simply hiring the person with the most exemplary skill set might seem an obvious staffing strategy, but you also have to make sure this is someone you can work with. That can be difficult to do when it’s your first attempt at hiring, and even more difficult at a distance.
That said, there are three basic things to think about when hiring a telecommuter:
The most obvious requirement for a potential employee will be their experience and skills, but this will mean more than very basic things like whether they can read or type so many words per minute. You are going to want to hire someone who will need minimal training. Previous experience doing precisely what you want them to do, or something similar in a different industry will be one of the top things you are looking for. But be open to the highly intelligent applicant who may not have much prior experience but whose demeanor and references demonstrate that they can learn the job with relatively little effort on your part.
Of course, before you get this far in your hiring plans, you’ll need to have given some thought to what kind of training you will offer. You may not be willing to teach your employee how to use a computer, but you probably would want to teach them how to your computer. Define your training parameters before you start looking, bearing in mind that training at a distance can be very awkward, and the time you spend doing it is lost to more productive activities.
Probably one of the most important elements of hiring a telecommuter is examining their application with a view toward assessing how well they will be able to work for you at a distance. This will include issues such as whether or not this is the kind of person who needs a lot of direct contact and reinforcement, who has to be told exactly what to do in every situation, or who will have trouble with the self-discipline required to be able to get the job done without a supervisor breathing down their neck every minute.
And here’s where the knowledge of your own management style comes into play, because you will have to decide how much control and supervising you want to do with this employee. When thinking about remote employees, it makes more sense to hire someone who is going to help you run your business rather than a mindless, extra pair of hands. So, when dealing with an employee who will be expected to accept real responsibility in the operation of your business, you may want to be able to outline the Big Picture for them and leave it to them to work out the details.
At the same time, you are certainly going to want to set some parameters, so that they know the extent of their authority and will not commit you or your business to something without clearing it with you. Make sure you answer these management issues for yourself first, because it will be much easier to find someone to fit your style than it will be hire somebody and then to try to cram them into your style after the fact.
Among the other work-style issues that may arise (e.g., telephone persona, working hours) is one of the major potential headaches of the remote employer: deadlines. There are many kinds of businesses that operate on a variety of different kinds of deadlines in different situations. A publication schedule, a sales presentation, a trade show or convention, a court appearance — all these are events for which you will need to be prepared and, if a part of that preparation depends on work you have assigned to your remote staff, you must be able to rely on them for timely completion of assigned projects.
“I really work well with her, but she can never seem to get anything finished when I need it.”
“She’s a terrific web designer, but she seems to operate on a different time line than I do.”
“I love her work, I just wish I could get it from her when I really need it.”
Yes, this is a fairly common problem. Even workers who functioned well under the pressure of deadlines in an office environment may have difficulty meeting them when working from home. Home-based work requires a great deal of self-discipline, as we all have reason to know. And that self-discipline is often difficult to screen for in advance, unless the applicant has held other telecommuting positions or has been working as an independent contractor for some time.
On the other hand, you don’t want to fire a potentially terrific employee right away; that would be a wasteful exercise since it would mean the time you’ve already spent training her goes down the tubes, along with the time you’ll have to spend training somebody new. Besides, it’s possible that the situation can be salvaged. Assuming for a moment that the employee who consistently misses deadlines was sufficiently well screened before the job was offered so that there is little possibility that the problem is a lack of job skills, the most likely culprit is either a lack of time management skills or it’s a management issue.
In either case, the best way to deal with the problem is to confront it directly. You have to let the employee know, in unambiguous language, that you are dissatisfied with their performance. Remember that it is even more important to confront this sort of problem directly when dealing with remote employees, who will not have the advantage of being able to read non-verbal cues in order to know when the boss is unhappy.
Talk with them and try to get an understanding of why they are having a problem meeting your deadlines. Go into your best problem-solving mode to figure out what is going wrong and work out a plan to attack it. Are they having trouble getting a handle on what their priorities should be? Is it unreasonable of you to expect anybody to get all that done in that amount of time? Are they just having trouble getting organized or managing their time? If the employee is having difficulty with assignments because they need to work on their time management skills or prioritizing their work, that is an area in which you can add to their on-the-job training.
On the other hand, be prepared to deal with the situation if it turns out that the problem is you. Make sure that you are giving precise directions to your employees. “I’m often amazed at how even experienced personnel managers have this problem,” says Gordon. “Managers need to be very clear when telling their employees what they want.
Gordon goes on to explain, “A boss might say, ‘I want that report as soon as you can get to it.’ Well, if the employee goes and looks at his desk, he might conclude that ‘as soon as you can get to it’ might be sometime three weeks from now. That boss needed to say something like, ‘I need that report by 3 p.m. on Friday, and if you won’t be able to meet that deadline, then let me know by noon on Thursday.'”
Also, when it comes to expecting people to get that much done in that amount of time, try as best you can to objectively assess whether it really is unreasonable to expect what you do. Would you be able to do it, along with all the other stuff this employee is doing for you? Would you be able to do it if you didn’t know as much about your business as you do? Are you holding her up because you are unavailable to answer her questions about the assignment? Are you particularly short-tempered when you are feeling particularly harried, so that your remote employee feels uncomfortable approaching you with questions?
Keeping lines of communication open with employees is always a good thing, but it is especially important with remote staff. No matter what is going wrong that day, try not to snarl at your telecommuter when they call to ask you questions about the work you assign. After all, you want it done right, don’t you?
Using the telecommuting option, once you have developed a working understanding of the skills you need and the kind of boss you are, can give you the flexibility to grow your home-based business, as you need to without limiting yourself to what you can handle alone. And, like many of the other skills involved in running your own business, human resource management can be mastered when you and your business need it.