Slack, Skype, Zoom: Remote work is becoming the norm at some small firms

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As more workers telecommute, managers go the extra mile for a cohesive unit. Sometimes it's more than a few miles. Vilem Prochazka, of Boston-based KangoGift, works from his Czech Republic home.

At more and more small businesses, watercooler chat takes place in a messaging app. Staff meetings are held via Skype. There may not even be an office.

Having a remote staff can be a good fit for many companies. The upsides: It expands the pool of job candidates, and lowers a company's overhead, since there's no need for a big office.

There can be downsides, too, including the risk of personal and professional isolation. And sometimes, interactions aren't as effective as they'd be in person.

"There is only so much that you can communicate through text," said Max Sheppard, CEO of TrustedPros Inc., an online service that helps people find home-improvement workers. "This makes it difficult to gauge employee emotions, morale, and well-being."

Sheppard, like many other business owners, uses messaging programs such as Google Hangout and Slack that let remote staffers hold group or individual chats. He has six employees, all in the Toronto area. Video services such as Skype and Zoom are also popular.

Many owners have at least one meeting a year that brings staffers together. Some, Sheppard among them, gather with employees for periodic dinners or other social activities.

Employees overall are doing more telecommuting, though it's hard to quantify how many work remotely and how many of those are at small companies. In a report from Gallup released earlier this year, nearly one-third said they worked remotely 80 percent or more of the time, up from nearly one-quarter who said they did in 2013.

Having some staffers work remotely while others are in the office can create separate cultures, and some remote employees may feel left out.

At Todd Horton's software company, KangoGift, four staffers work together in Boston and six are remote, scattered in Europe and India. Communication can be problematic - some employees feel so distant, they forget to keep everyone in the loop with them.

"Information can get trapped in silos," said Horton, whose business helps companies send performance awards to employees. "If the European team gains an insight and doesn't share it quickly, the others will never know something happened."

Another wrinkle: Horton will sometimes take the Boston crew out for a business lunch, and the overseas employees learn of it.

"They know they're missing out," he said.

At H2O Media, an advertising agency based in Eden Prairie, Minn., where seven of 12 staffers work remotely, "we all try to look at the separation as a positive, and we make an effort to stay connected via team emails, calls, and annual meetings," said Allison Baker, social media and marketing coordinator.

But Baker noted that the remote workers include salespeople - a job that had employees working away from an office long before computers or telecommuting.

Timing may be key to the success or failure of a remote work situation, said James Celentano, managing director of EnterGain LLC, a human-resources consulting firm. If a company transitions from in-office to remote staffing, it can be a difficult adjustment. Start-ups, especially those with tech-savvy staffers, may find it easier.

"Those that do it well or have fewer issues," Celentano said, "are companies that embrace it from the get-go."

Business owners need to be aware if working remotely is getting staffers down.

Kean Graham, who recalls getting cabin fever when he worked at home the first few years after starting his company, is mindful of the need for his staffers to sometimes see different scenery during the workday.

"You have to be proactive and change your environment - go to a coffee shop or shared workspace or even go take a walk," said Graham, CEO of MonetizeMore, an advertising-technology firm. He's based in Victoria, British Columbia, and has 80 remote staffers on five continents.

Managers need to watch for signs that workers are discontented, even depressed, Graham said. For example: anger or withdrawal that becomes apparent from the tone of a staffer's voice, email, or text, or a lack of communication.

A remote employee's morale needs to be an important consideration when a boss makes any kind of communication, but especially a critique.

"If you don't word it correctly, people can take offense at something very simple. You have to be very pointed in how you ask questions or give feedback," said Michael Fry, president of Deepwater Subsea LLC in Houston, which inspects oil rigs and has 11 staffers in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

His solution: Pick up the phone. A conversation, which can also be done with video to see the other person, is not only more personal but can lower the risk of misunderstandings.

A remote job can be a dream for some employees but a disaster for others. They can miss working with colleagues or find it hard to stay productive.

"Working from home sounds alluring and sexy, but what we've found is there are just some people that shouldn't work from home," said Bryan Miles, CEO of the staffing company Belay Solutions, whose 70 employees at its base in Atlanta all telecommute.

Usually, it's clear in three to six months whether working remotely is a good fit, Miles said.

With a remote staff, a company can lose some of the spontaneous chatter about sports, movies, or news that helps create the kind of camaraderie Andrea Goulet remembers from working in a traditional office setting.

Her solution for Corgibytes, her 12-employee Richmond, Va.-based software repair and revising company, is to encourage staffers to keep a daily Slack journal about what's happening with them.

"If you neglect the entire human side of communication," said Goulet, who has workers in four states, "then you don't feel that connection."