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.

Introduction

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.

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Telecommuting Gets a Bad Rap

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.

Next: Flexible Work Policies

Flexible Work Policies

Over the past three months, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has explored the policies needed to support remote work arrangements for our call center employees, medical record coders and our desktop engineering team. We determined these three groups of employees were ideal for the pilot for a variety of reasons: JetBlue previously demonstrated with its customer service staff that call center employees can successfully work from home. We chose medical record coders because they're difficult to find in Boston and because their work doesn't have to be done in a traditional office space as long as they have access to patient medical records. Finally, the IS engineers who design Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's infrastructure benefit from a quiet environment that's conducive to the concentration required for their work.

The goal of the flexible work arrangement we're piloting is threefold: to enhance productivity and cost savings, improve employee recruitment and retention, and to more efficiently use existing office space. We chose employees for the pilot on the basis of whether letting them participate in a flexible work arrangement would advance any of those three goals.

We modeled our flexible work policy on one established by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which has been an early leader in homesourcing. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts created a flexible work arrangement worksheet that's designed to help managers evaluate if an employee's job tasks can be performed remotely. The worksheet also establishes an agreement between an employee and manager about the employee's job performance and productivity while working remotely. We are in the process of customizing our own flexible work arrangement worksheet based on Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts's.

Creating a policy that is flexible enough to support many employee roles while specific enough to identify which employees can work remotely and which cannot is challenging. Blue Cross's policy provides employees and managers with a framework for discussing the possibility of flexible work that sets mutual expectations, identifies the employee's responsibilities and codifies criteria for success. This framework has enabled me to have open discussions with pilot employees interested in flexible work arrangements and to maintain a sense of equity since everyone understands what can and cannot be done. Extending this framework to the entire population at Beth Israel Deaconess is still a work in progress. The next step is a series of focus groups scheduled for April and May 2008 with over 40 managers from throughout the medical center who will document their unique needs and the challenges facing their departments with respect to flexible work arrangements.

With a pilot policy in place, we can think about the infrastructure required to support flexible work arrangements.

My Personal Pilot

From November 26 to November 30, I tried working from home. I replaced my own scheduled plane flights with video teleconferencing, moved my in-person meetings to conference calls, and attempted to avoid all commuting for five days. I was almost successful. I had to go into the office for 30 minutes for an unplanned meeting with a new senior vice president of facilities. First-time meetings—with new employees or to kick off a project—seem to be the one case where "face to face" is truly important.

I was more productive during my week at home because I could work when I'd otherwise be stuck in Boston traffic. Although it's true that I have my BlackBerry with me at all times, I do not read or respond to e-mail while the car is moving, especially in bumper to bumper traffic.

For a home office to work, it must be a dedicated space with a door that can isolate the remote worker from distractions. There really needs to be a sense of mental separation: As I close the door to the home office, I've commuted to work and will commute home when I exit my workspace. It is impossible to work from home while also caring for children or other members of the household, answering the door for UPS deliveries, or competing with the family for use of the phone. A home office should have its own phone line. My time at any office, home or corporate, requires a laser-like focus on hundreds of e-mails, dozens of phone calls and numerous negotiations—all of which require my complete attention. I can't be distracted by dishes in the sink or laundry in the dryer.

Achieving mental separation is one challenge. The other challenge associated with working remotely is getting used to not being on the front lines. Typically my day takes place in data centers, hospital wards, board rooms and cubicles. Although I may be as productive working remotely as I am when I'm in the office, I feel emotionally separated from the action if I cannot walk to a colleague's office or assess a critical situation in a hands-on fashion. This problem is more about perception than reality. With the basic technology tools I've outlined in this article, I can achieve all the communication, coordination and leadership needed, but I've not yet personally adapted to virtual management. It's a bit like telesurgery. You expect to feel the heat of the operating room lights, the sights and smells of cutting and sewing, and sounds of all your coworkers around you. Technically, telesurgery can be as good as in person surgery, but it requires the surgeon to have a mind-set that sets aside the sensory cues of the traditional operating room.

I have been an effective CIO while traveling 400,000 miles a year, so I know that I can lead via BlackBerry, phone calls, Web-based collaboration and teleconferencing. I should feel as connected in my home office as I do while sitting in an airport. I'm sure that emotional comfort will come over time.

--John Halamka

Next: Infrastructure

Infrastructure

Enabling an employee to work from a remote location is like extending the corporate office to hundreds of new sites. Seamless telephone transfers to the home office, desktop support, network connectivity and security support are just a few of the services IT departments will have to provide. Furnishing employees with all the technology necessary for them to work from a home office is key to implementing a successful telecommuting or flexible work policy. You can't expect employees to maintain the same level of productivity and service that they do in the office while at home if they lack access to the files and applications they need to do their jobs and if they lack technologies such as instant messaging that ease communication and collaboration.

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