Working remotely is becoming more commonplace for businesses of all sizes, from the multi-international corporations to the two-man shops.  While many small businesses are embracing this trend, few have official policies in place governing how and when employees work remotely.

Remote workers can significantly reduce overhead costs and lure and retain top talent, but not establishing guidelines for out-of-office workers could set a small business up for failure.

Create an Official Policy

A recent survey conducted by Microsoft of 4,500 information workers, found that 56% of small and medium-sized information employees said their companies don’t have an official policy for working remotely.

That’s a problem, according to the experts. Establishing guidelines will boost productivity, facilitate easy communication and helps establish trust between an employer and the staff.

“There are obvious positions where you may want people to be physically on the premise during the working day and other jobs when that isn’t necessary,” said Josh Waldo, director of small business marketing at Microsoft. “A policy defines the types of roles and responsibilities.” He adds a policy should also set expectations and rules for remote workers.

 Move to the Cloud

The popularity of cloud computing, or accessing software and hardware capabilities over the Internet, has made working remotely easier than ever.  Long gone are the days when cloud computing capabilities were too expensive for small businesses. Small businesses can now offer remote workers access to software and collaboration tools at an affordable price. By using applications in the cloud, the small business in essence hands off the security of the systems to the cloud provider, ensuring their data is safe while employees work outside the office.

Recognizing the growing importance of cloud computing, Microsoft launched Office 365, a cloud-based set of collaborative tools including an instant messenger service that consolidates phone, voice mail and instant messaging in one place. The application alos lets employees share screens between workers in different locations, share PowerPoint presentations and engage in video conferencing.

Secure Laptops and other Remote Devices

Running applications on the cloud will protect data from getting compromised, but a small business also has to protect the physical hardware remote workers use to access applications--whether it’s a laptop, smartphone or USB drive.

 If a worker loses a mobile device the information could be compromised if it falls into the wrong hands. Waldo suggest small businesses make sure any laptops, mobile phones and USB drives used to share data are encrypted so sensitive information can’t be easily accessed.

It is also a good idea to set it up to be able to do a remote wipe of any lost or stolen devices. According to Waldo, if a small business doesn’t have an in-house IT staff, it’s important for the business to get a consultant to help make sure its mobile hardware is secure.

Creating a policy and securing all information and devices is important, but none of that really matters if remote employees aren’t actually working.  Waldo says companies can measure output and hold employees accountable by establishing goals. He added that constantly check up on employees is counter productive.

“There’s a paradigm shift from where we started in the business where control is a big factor,” said Waldo. “Managers have to start letting go for the business to benefit from remote working.”