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How to keep 'work from home' employees accountable--without spying

Liane Cassavoy | April 2, 2013
We all hear the jokes about employees not-really-working at home. If you're not sure what remote employees are up to, use these tech tools and management tips to get the most out of them and take the worry out of your work-at-home policy. (Surprise: Spying is not the best answer.)

Siler says that the virtual office he created at HiringThing has been effective. He notes that the company relies heavily on free calling and video conferencing from Skype, as well as 37 Signals' Campfire chat tool, which starts at $12 a month for a Basic plan that covers 12 users and offers 1GB of storage. HiringThing also uses Google's Gmail and Calendar apps for business, which start at $5 per user per month, and GitHub, which offers online tools for software development. GitHub is free for open-source users, and starts at $7 per month for all other software developers.

But just as important as the products HiringThing uses is the company culture that has emerged, Siler says. "We're trust-based, and we don't micromanage our employees. We judge everyone based on their output. Anyone can make their schedule flexible, as long as they meet their commitments to their coworkers," he says. "Our employees know that their performance is what matters, and we talk about it on a regular basis."

Gathering at the virtual watercooler

Peter Kirwan, Jr., the CEO and co-founder of Collexion, an online startup preparing to launch a site for collectors, also uses Skype--on a 65-inch TV--to stay in touch with remote employees based, in some cases, thousands of miles away from his company's San Diego headquarters. Kirwan also relies on Google Apps email and calendar, the free Google Drive for file sharing, Skype, and Smartsheet's online project-planning tools, which are available starting at $16 per month. He and Collexion cofounder Doug Taylor agree that the wiki they use, Atlassian's Confluence--which is available with a Starter License (for ten or fewer users) for $10 per month--is key to their success with remote workers.

"Thanks to social networks, people are becoming more effective at expressing small thoughts online," Taylor says. "The wiki allows them to express themselves in this way, and it allows people to overhear the conversation, and keep it going. It also creates accountability, because we know when someone said something if it's written on the wiki."

Also vital to Collexion is Asana's task management software (the same program used at, which allows employees to create and assign tasks to others--even the boss. "It can be hard for some people, but we've worked to create a culture from the top down where it's okay to send a task to your boss. We don't want people sending email, we want them sending tasks," Kirwan says. He adds that the program's ability to allow comments on tasks helps keep everyone accountable.

Creating the right (virtual) atmosphere

While all of these tools and products can keep remote employees connected and accountable, everyone we interviewed for this article agrees that no tool is worth much if your company doesn't have the right attitude and culture for accommodating remote employees. And some folks don't rely on technology at all.


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