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Telecommuting technology a double-edged sword for SMBs

Entrepreneurs and small business owners rely on telecommuting tech for day-to-day business operations, but success also requires an old-school touch.

Reaction to Yahoo's recently enacted ban on telecommuting has seesawed between outrage and praise. Serial entrepreneur Sharon Kan doesn't care whether Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made a good decision. Instead, she wants to dig into the role the technology of telecommuting plays in building a small, vibrant business.

Ann Swift Crosby

Photo courtesy of Flickr,
Dell's Official Flickr Page

"Can you utilize technology to increase productivity? Do you need to have everyone in the same room?" asked Kan, entrepreneur in residence at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "What is technology doing?"

For Amy Swift Crosby, founder of Smarty, a Los Angeles-based networking and educational resource for entrepreneurial women, the answer is clear. Telecommuting technology is the lifeblood of her five-year-old business. "For my people and those I talk to, it's pretty amazing because it allows them to live their lives," she said. "They're lifestyle people."

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) reap tremendous benefits from telecommuting technologies: Web and mobile-enabled applications that allow employees to work anytime from anywhere, powerful computers that now come in the shape of a phone and high-speed pipes that allow employers to tap talent from around the globe. These technologies help SMBs to act more like big businesses. That was a given at the recent "Think Tank" event for entrepreneurs and small businesses in Boston, moderated by Kan. What was less apparent at the event, sponsored by Dell Inc., is how a small, growing company balances its use of remote-work-enabling technology with more traditional approaches that may prove vital to success, from in-person office meetings to developing in-house expertise.

Take outsourcing, for example. When Joan Beeson-Healy worked for a division of OSF Global Services, the company found and hired a group of physicists based in Romania. Beeson-Healy hailed them as one of the most effective teams she's worked with. The big win: Outsourcing to Romania helped save money. "The pay scale was so low, but the expertise was right-on," she said. "We couldn't have physicists in the United States doing this work."

Indeed, several attendees at the event testified how communications technology has transformed how they do business. Kan, for example, is currently working with a Miami startup because she brings a set of skills to the table that the startup couldn't find locally. She uses such applications as Google Hangout to help overcome the long-distance aspect of the arrangement. And in return, technological tools, like a video chat program, are changing the way she -- and employees like her -- work.

"I have offices, but I don't really go to them," Kan said. "I run my life with my laptop and my phone. That's what's been happening to me in the last couple of years."

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For fostering the kind of creativity Mayer hopes to rekindle at Yahoo by having people work face-to-face, however, the verdict was less obvious. Even telecommuting poster-child Kan mentioned she would soon be flying to Miami specifically to participate in a brainstorming event for the startup company.

Face time also still counts for entrepreneur Miriam Christof, founder of JustJump Marketing in Wellesley, Mass., which specializes in helping businesses incorporate social media into their marketing strategies. "Meeting in person when you really want to spark creativity is always the best," she said. "I don't know why, but it always brings as much as a 50% better result, in my experience."

And in Christof's experience, outsourcing for talent can take a business only so far. "There comes a point when you have to hire talent locally. You need people who understand your culture, your values and your philosophy," she said.

Especially in a small business, where success so often stems from high-quality customer service, it's critical that employees understand how the company interacts with customers and how it manages customer accounts, Christof explained in an email after the event. She needs that interaction to be seamless, and that means giving the employee a front-seat view of how she and Kirsten Furman, her partner, do business. "Personal contact with your employee is very important to transport your work style, your communications style and your philosophy when it comes to project management," she said.

Several of the event's attendees also noted that the increasing use of social networking and digital media technology at work can detract from more important, difficult tasks. Following Twitter streams on a topic of interest to the business can quickly turn into a big time-sink -- giving people the sense they are working but yielding little business value. Even social media maven Christof said she has dialed back, issuing a self-imposed limitation on social networking. Henceforth, her digital media strategy no longer includes posting to Facebook about her business, and she keeps her Twitter list extremely focused.

"I found technology camouflaged the real problems for me. When I have access, I'm all over social networks, but it's not scalable," Christof said -- not to mention unhealthy. Without those limits, "I'd go crazy," she said, "because I would be on it all of the time."

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Have you found the right balance between high-tech communication and more traditional approaches?