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Remote location workers: issues, opportunities and risks

In recent surveys of manpower requirements, a third of business leaders have indicated that they envisage that more than half of their full-time staff may be based and working outside their corporate premises by 2020. This could mean that one in five of all employees, as well as consultants and independent commission workers, may either never, or only rarely, come face-to-face with their immediate reporting supervisors. Many may hardly ever meet other members of their corporate community. This situation presents many physical and psychological risks that need to be resolved.

Types of remote workers

Remote workers fall into a wide variety of categories. At the top end are directors, advisors and retained consultants who may communicate electronically or telephonically but may actually operate elsewhere. They may be located in a different country, or even on the other side of the world, with a 24 hour time difference from their official workplace. Others may be travelling sales representatives, customer service people or other mobile staff, who need to maintain close, potentially daily or more frequent contact with their counterparts.

In another category entirely are part-time or full-time operatives who perform tasks that are normally undertaken in factory premises, but actually choose, or are required to operate in a non-company location, most frequently at home. There are many of these, especially in developing countries, often producing garments, handicrafts or components. Most are women workers.

Risks of remote working

Remote working opens the way to labour abuses, discouraged or banned under fair working conditions laws of developed countries. Working at home tends to exempt workers from most forms of labour regulations. Working conditions may be unhygienic or poorly-lit. Working hours may be long. There are risks of forced or juvenile labour that cannot readily be controlled even in countries with efficient labour inspection. In Thailand, there have been many cases of effective slave labour, concealed from the authorities by sub-contracting arrangements. There is now a trend to prevent abuses by eliminating out-of-factory labour. Working in factory premises can better ensure all production is directly undertaken under management supervision, to satisfy supply chain integrity now required by many overseas importers and distributors.

Physical needs of remote workers

For lower level workers in remote locations, it is essential for employers to undertake regular visits with inspection of premises, to ensure adequate physical conditions. Good working conditions are necessary both for workers and for products. This is especially important in food industries. It is also very important to ensure environmental hygiene, especially the elimination of dust or fumes, which may convey health hazards, for workers as well as diminution of product quality.

Psychological needs of remote workers

A good working environment from a psychological viewpoint is just as important for the remotely-located director or consultant as for the garment seamstress. There are at least two aspects of psychological stability for remote workers. The first is solidarity with the organisation. The second is mental stability of the individual worker.

Organisations place increasing emphasis on corporate solidarity. Companies take pride in brand, product quality, and team spirit. Much of this depends on regular physical contact with the organisation. Remote workers may have little chance to benefit from these relationships, and the solidarity, mutual trust and responsibility that these relationships may convey. It is therefore very necessary to have some direct and regular contact between worker and company. Ideally this should take the form of meeting together with fellow workers, with social events linked with training and guidance provided by company senior executives. Such gatherings are a means not only to improve performance, but also to enhance loyalty and a feeling that the organisation really cares about the well-being of its remote workers.

Training and efficiency

In a factory environment, targets can be set, on-the-spot guidance and correction can be given, and upgrading training can be scheduled. Best performers can be reward in cultural environments where high performance can be praised and specially rewarded. The workplace environment is a good place to do this, with encouragement for others. With remote workers, these working relationships are more difficult, and require careful planning.

Proper training is essential: one cannot leave a worker to find his or her own way in any productive or service occupation. Regular interaction with supervisors is essential, evaluating performance and incentivising improvement. For travelling sales people and commission agents, these interactions are especially important, and may need to take place every week or at least every month.

Importance of communication

Because remote workers are inevitably isolated, the need for regular communication is essential. This applies equally to communication between the worker and the supervisor, but also with other workers. Mechanisms need to be set up for inter-worker contacts, because without organisational support, this will not happen. In some cases, as in a village of silk weavers, interaction will be continuous. This helps to explain why silk weaving can attain such high quality in Thailand. The weavers know each other, help each other, and work together, although independently, as a community.

Communication needs to be two-way, with feedback, a complaints mechanism and a suggestions system. Workers in the front-line often identify issues and opportunities that are unrecognised at higher levels. This can also apply in the case of remote workers.

It is also necessary to identify the best means of communication with remote workers. Gone are the days when the only means of communicating was a land-line telephone at the provincial capital. There are now far more mobile telephones than there are people in Thailand, and social media are universal. However means of communication need to be formalised, with both regular link-ups and also unscheduled hot-lines for emergencies. Remote workers are away from the corporate mainstream, so communication is the key to everything. Miscommunication is the source of disaster. In all cases, a communication from a remote worker requires a prompt response. There is nothing worse than a formal, automatic response that the matter will receive attention, but call-back never happens.


The numbers of remote workers are increasing rapidly worldwide but the specific techniques for handling the system are little understood. This is a sector of human resources that needs specialised in-depth attention, with specific techniques adapted to respond to the conditions of a different kind of human resource situation.

Christopher F. Bruton, over 46 years in Thailand, is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, a local consultancy. He can be reached at Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides meetings, seminars and extensive documentation to update business on present and future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.