This is the second in a three-part series on how small employers can focus on work-life programs to recruit and retain the best employees. Read part one here .
WHEN DAVID A. FIELDS was setting up his tiny Ridgefield, Conn., management-consulting firm in 2005, he needed a way to lure talented employees used to working for big-name clients. He couldn’t offer expensive health insurance, corporate gym memberships or fancy office space.
But he could offer one valuable benefit to prospective employees: the ability to work remotely.
Thanks to technology, Fields runs his home-based business, Ascendant Consulting, almost virtually. Connected by web applications, his six employees are scattered in their homes throughout Connecticut and one, his administrative assistant, is in New Jersey. Not only has the arrangement saved him significant overhead costs, but it’s allowed him to recruit and retain, in his opinion, the best employees for the job.
“I have found a fabulous talent pool among professionals — more females than males, but both — who have all the corporate blue-chip training and background, but left blue-chip land because they wanted to spend more time with their families,” Fields says. Most of his employees are raising young children; one is taking care of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s. “You just can’t do that and be in the office all the time,” he says.
Indeed, a growing number of small businesses say allowing employees the flexibility to work from home — especially when life circumstances demand it — gives them an edge over larger rivals that maintain more traditional set-ups. Many say such alternative work arrangements wouldn’t be possible without a host of new technology products that allow them to connect electronically, work off the same version of documents, and have brainstorming sessions in chat rooms rather than physical conference rooms.
“To us, it’s a competitive advantage,” says Rohyt Belani, who co-founded his information security company, Intrepidus Group, in January 2007 with the idea that employees could work from home as often as they liked or needed. While his company has a small office in New York, all seven employees in the New York or Washington, D.C., areas work mostly from home when not traveling to meet with clients.
To make it work, Belani has set up a channel on Skype , the free voice-over-Internet service, that allows employees to talk with one another almost as if they are in the same physical office. “It’s like sitting in a room and screaming, ‘can anyone answer this’,” he says of the Skype chat-room. He also relies on FolderShare , a free Microsoft service, to synchronize files on staffers’ respective laptops, which makes it seem like they are all sharing the same hard drive. The company maintains an internal ‘wiki’ site, so employees who learn a new way to handle a problem can post remedies for the rest to see.
To ensure communication, Belani makes sure everyone participates in weekly conference calls, and he takes his New York employees out to lunch once a week, and his D.C. employees once a month. “Given our low overhead, a lunch once a week is no big deal,” he says. “It builds camaraderie.” Most of his employees were drawn to Intrepidus because they have young families and wanted to work from home when not on the road, he says.