How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Telecommuting

CareGroup CIO John Halamka takes an in-depth look at the policies and technologies necessary for supporting flexible work arrangements.

By John Halamka, MD
Mon, March 17, 2008



In my 10 years as a CIO, I've strongly believed that productivity is optimized when everyone meets and works in close physical proximity. That way, teams get the benefit of being able to brainstorm in person, respond to urgent issues as a group and build trust among one another. I didn't think telecommuting was right for IT departments.

This article is my official about-face on telecommuting and flexible work arrangements. A variety of factors have changed my opinion on the best way to get work done.

First, the travel required to bring employees together in an office has become burdensome and expensive. Metropolitan areas are clogged with traffic, and gas prices are causing financial hardship. On average, I spend 1.5 hours in my car each day commuting a total of 20 miles to and from my office. Many of my staff members spend as much as four hours a day commuting. That's almost the equivalent to half their workday. At the same time, people's awareness of the environmental impact of those long commutes is on the rise. If working flexible hours reduces an employee's commute by an hour or more each way, productivity and staff satisfaction will rise.

What's more, face-to-face meetings that take weeks to schedule no longer support the pace of IT change and the level of service demands. Finding all the talented employees I need on staff within a reasonable commuting distance is also challenging. And for some jobs, the interruptions an office brings may actually reduce employee productivity. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts recently piloted a flexible work arrangement and found that productivity for 200 staffers working from home rose 20 percent; only two participants had performance issues.

Given these facts, I believe IT leaders are obligated to explore the entire spectrum of flexible work arrangements including telecommuting, homesourcing (a combination of outsourcing and telecommuting), virtual teams, and replacing travel with teleconferencing. Staffing an office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. doesn't make sense if it requires employees to spend hours in traffic.

Telecommuting's benefits have long been proven. In the 1970s, Paul Gray, a now retired Claremont College professor of information science, studied the effectiveness of telecommuting among government workers in London. His studies, chronicled in "Telecommuting-Transportation Tradeoffs: Options for Tomorrow" (Wiley 1975), showed that once co-workers have an initial in-person meeting, they're "able to work in dispersed mode with no loss of effectiveness," he wrote.

In 2008, we have many technologies for communication: e-mail, instant messaging, teleconferencing, wikis, online meetings, secure file transfer, blogs and virtual private networks (VPNs). Internet connections are fast, reliable and cheap. I pay $40 a month for a 20Mbit/sec. fiber connection in my basement. These technologies are making flexible work arrangements possible and productive.

Of course, there are issues to overcome.

A home office needs infrastructure support—networks, desktops and a connection to the corporate phone system. Figuring out the best way to service hundreds of remote locations requires planning and pilots—extra work for IT departments already stretched thin. However, the technology required to support home offices and remote workers doesn't need to be complicated. Videoconferencing isn't always necessary, for example. Phone calls and Web-based presentation tools often work better.

Managing employees who work remotely also presents unique challenges, such as ensuring they maintain their productivity and continue to communicate effectively with management, staff and customers while offsite.

Equity is another problem. Some staffers, such as those doing direct desktop service or training, need to be onsite. They may resent their coworkers who can work from home. You need to find ways to offer some flexibility to staff who need to be in the office, such as letting them work four 10-hour days.

Then there are the security and privacy questions, which loom especially large for me since my IT organization is part of a large healthcare provider, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass. If employees are to access sensitive health data from their homes, I need to investigate biometric devices, re-examine application time-outs, strengthen surveillance of audit logs and ensure end-to-end security from data center to the home.

I've dealt with all of these issues over the past four months, as I've piloted flexible work arrangements inside my IT organization. I've studied the technologies, policies and business processes required to manage technology professionals engaging in flexible work arrangements. I even spent a week telecommuting, from November 26 through 30, 2007, just to see what it was like. In this article, you'll find my evaluation of a variety of technology tools— blogs, wikis, and instant messaging and more—that you can use to support teleworkers. You'll also read my description of common management and infrastructure challenges you may encounter—along with ways to overcome them. I hope my experience implementing flexible work arrangements will give you the information you need to establish fair and effective policies in your IT organization.

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