Getting Clueful: Seven Things the CIO Should Know About Telecommuting

IT workers who telecommute share advice for their bosses about the process, technology, and attitudes necessary for staff to be productive when they work from home.

Telecommuting provides employees with the flexibility and quiet they need to optimize their productivity. Plus, it offers employers opportunities to save money and recruit workers from a more geographically diverse—and potentially cheaper—talent pool. For IT professionals, telecommuting is certainly the best work/life option.

However, working from home isn't always easy for individuals or employers. For telecommuting arrangements to work for both parties, employees need to be self-motivated, have access to the necessary technology (such as a high-speed Internet connection and a VPN), and clearly define job duties that can be accomplished remotely. At the same time, employers need to make their teleworkers feel like they're a part of the team, integrate telecommuters into workflows and judge employee productivity by results rather than visual cues.

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But too often, IT management doesn't understand the key issues that can affect productivity and team morale. Managers can make painful and expensive errors even when their hearts are in the right place. If you get telecommuting right, you'll have a crew of independent technologists who get their jobs done efficiently; if not, you'll create dissension, distrust and workflow confusion.

You don't have to repeat others' expensive mistakes. In this article, CIO.com presents input that several telecommuting IT professionals shared via e-mail about the benefits the practice brings to the enterprise, processes that help remote workers interact with other team members, and the irritations that twist telecommuters' shorts in a knot. Here's what your employees truly want you to know about telecommuting.

Telecommuters also need to adopt techniques for working at home, both to keep their sanity and to move their career along. See the accompanying article, Telecommuters Need to Develop Special Skills, for guidance on that subject.

1. Telecommuting Saves Money. Truly.

Companies have the potential to benefit financially in a number of ways from supporting telecommuters. First, fewer people in the corporate office means companies save money on such expenses as rent, furniture and facilities maintenance.

Second, companies open to hiring remote workers benefit from wider—and potentially cheaper—pools of applicants. They can hire qualified workers without regard to their geographic location. For example, a San Francisco Bay-area company can find a top-notch programmer to telecommute from Oklahoma for far less than the company would pay a local developer confronting Bay-area housing costs.

This "more diverse pool of applicants" includes disabled citizens, 70 percent of whom are unemployed, primarily due to the lack of accessible transportation to the workplace, especially in rural areas, according to Ed Dodds, a systems architecture consultant, who telecommutes for several different companies that have retained his services. "Working from home offices outfitted with assistive technologies via broadband and VPN 'virtually' eliminates this barrier," he says.

Finally, a telecommuting bill in Congress, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), promises tax incentives for employers who support remote workers. The Parents' Tax Relief Act of 2007 suggests a vastly simplified home office deduction ($2,500 or the profit from the home-based business, whichever is less) and a telecommuting tax credit for employers of up to $2,400 per telecommuter. In addition, employers that provide telecommuters with computers and broadband access equipment can write off the expense. If it passes, this bill may make telecommuting more attractive to employers.

2. Telecommuters Really Can Be More Productive

One of the biggest barriers to telecommuting is convincing the boss that working remotely is not the same thing as slacking off. Unfortunately, many managers are sure that someone who isn't visible isn't working, which creates a taboo around telecommuting.

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Katie Albers, a user experience consultant and project manager, wishes IT managers would get over their conviction that "face time = productivity." That just isn't so, she says. "I've telecommuted and worked in an office and in a cubicle farm. I know that I got my best work done fastest when I telecommuted. I could take breaks when my brain stopped being productive. If the plumber came, it took 15 minutes to deal with him, not 45 minutes to get home, an hour and a half to stand around while I waited for the work to be done, and another 45 minutes to get back to work."

Like Albers, most telecommuters believe they are far more productive at home than in the office. Why? It's quieter, with fewer interruptions. The dozens of remote workers queried for this story repeatedly underscored this point.

Gloria Willadsen, a freelance UNIX application and embedded systems developer, says her productivity at home is double to triple what it is in the office because of the calm her home affords. "I do heavy algorithm programming, and I need silence while this is happening. We don't have silence in our office, but in my home, I have places of perfect peace."

Working from the comfort and quiet of home doesn't mean telecommuters have to completely detach themselves from the rest of the team. In fact, for telecommuting to work for the company—and for telecommuters to squash the idea that they're goofing off watching Oprah during work hours—they have to be, and importantly appear to be accessible. For that matter, it takes a particular kind of worker to be a successful telecommuter.

3. Telecommuting Doesn't Work for Every Individual

Happy telecommuters are the first to tell you that the lifestyle is not for everyone. Telecommuters need to be self-starters. They need to find alternate ways to interact with peers, and they must believe that the advantages (such as working with a cat on one's lap) far outweigh the disadvantages (such as missing out on those "brownies in the second-floor kitchen" e-mail messages, or at least on the brownies themselves).

Some managers are resistant to home-based work arrangements because of a bad experience they had in the past. They may have let someone work from home who lacked the necessary self-motivation to telecommute and were burned by it. IT professionals who telecommute wish IT managers understood that one bad experience shouldn't be a reason to prohibit it entirely. "Different people thrive in different environments," says Kimberly Kohler, a Chicago-area manager and software developer. "Just because telecommuting doesn't work for you (or your wife, husband, sister, best friend) doesn't mean it can't work for anyone."

One apparent solution is to view telecommuting as a reward for productive office workers. However, it doesn't work that way. Some people need the hustle and bustle of an office environment to function at their best and would pine away from loneliness when "rewarded" by working from home.

Instead, telecommuting is simply an option that needs to make sense to the IT professional who is aware of the best environment to inspire his productivity. Steve O'Hara-Smith, a UNIX developer with 27 years in the trade, wants managers to make telecommuting an easy choice whenever it's feasible, instead of "requiring extraordinary circumstances" before permitting it. Telecommuting shouldn't be limited to situations in which the office is flooded, the IT professional breaks a leg and can't drive, or a railroad strike keeps people from getting to company headquarters. The only reason why O'Hara-Smith could begin telecommuting was that he faced his own extraordinary circumstances—family health problems. "Now that I am established telecommuting, and everyone is happy with the work I do, there is no pressure to stop it," he says.

4. Trust Your People

Emotionally, trust is a key issue for telecommuters. Its absence or presence makes a major difference in a telecommuter's morale. Melanie Archer, a freelance website developer in the San Francisco Bay area, says employers need to treat their telecommuters with respect. "You've hired a grown-up professional who knows how to manage her time. If you treat her like a high school truant, she will seek other employment," says Archer.

Kohler, the Chicago-based software developer, agrees that trust is critical to successful telecommuting arrangements. It took years of pushing, but she finally got permission to work from home two days a week. Unfortunately, her boss agreed grudgingly, and it shows in his behavior. "This definitely affects my morale when working from home or the office. I have been with the company 11 years and am well respected and trusted, yet I feel my telecommuting arrangement is met with suspicion, which makes me feel undervalued."

5. Hone Management Skills for Telecommuting

Telecommuting is a true test of a manager's skill. It's hard enough to measure employee output when the individual is in the office; now supervisors need to add the complexity of doing it from a distance. And not every manager possesses the necessary skills for keeping tabs on telecommuters.

Elizabeth Ross, director of technology projects execution at AMEC Earth & Environmental, has telecommuted and managed telecommuters. She sees a direct relationship between the strength of a manager and the telecommuting experience. "Managers who know how to manage resources, subcontractors, etc., can make the situation work, sometimes exceptionally," she says. "Managers who don't communicate well, [who] don't know how to manage their own time well, etc., don't get around to checking in or managing the telecommuter very well (if at all)."

It's that latter kind of manager (e.g., the inept manager) who's typically the least supportive of telecommuting, according to Ross, because the work arrangement highlights the manager's weaknesses and requires him or her to improve or change his or her style. For that reason, user experience consultant Albers suggests that only managers "who have demonstrated extraordinary organization and leadership abilities" should be allowed to manage telecommuters.

Across the board, telecommuters agree that managers should focus on results. Focus on managing the work rather than the workers, they say. It's important for managers who supervise telecommuters to clearly communicate a well-organized concept of tasks and target deadlines and their interdependencies. That is, don't just give the teleworker an assignment and due date; make sure he knows its context in the project and where this task fits in its critical path.

Focusing on output is not simply a matter of looking for people who fail to produce. It means being attuned to how people get work done. For example, if a telecommuter finishes a project before the deadline, the employee's manager should find out if the employee is ready to start on a new task or if she just spent a lot of time up front to have a couple of days free to do something else. Someone who always meets deadlines early is obviously capable of working faster, a fact that can be used in planning (and rewarded with additional compensation to acknowledge her capability). By contrast, if someone is missing deadlines, the manager needs to identify the root cause of the problem; don't just assume employee incompetence.

6. Keep the Telecommuter in the Loop

With all that focus on tasks, don't lose track of telecommuters' human needs—especially if they rarely have the opportunity to interact with the rest of the staff. That means taking the time to wish them a happy birthday (even if just by e-mail), expressing concern for problems they encounter and sharing in their joys. Do whatever you can, in small or large ways, to make telecommuters part of the team.

Lisa Curhan, an operations engineering manager at Sun Microsystems, telecommutes two or three times a month and manages other telecommuters. She recommends that managers require a telecommuter to get a reasonable amount of face-to-face contact with the manager and the rest of the team to afford the type of communication that can be missed by telephone. "For my staff, they (without my prompting) make sure they are in person for the weekly staff meeting and some key engineering meetings," she says. "If the telecommuter is quite remote, this need would probably be met by a quarterly in-person session. Although some telecommuters only meet yearly in person with their managers, that wouldn't be my preference."

Curhan also advises managers to set up regular one-on-one phone meetings—not for the purpose of micromanaging, she says, but to ensure that concerns about the remote management are aired. Regular meetings, whether face to face or over the phone, give managers an opportunity to connect with their remote employees and provide mentoring, feedback or training.

Reporter's note: Sun Microsystems is known for its active support of telecommuting. Distinguished Sun Microsystems Laboratories engineer Susan Landau wrote a marvelous article about remote work for Computing Research News. It presents gobs of useful advice and lessons the company has learned from its experience with telecommuters. I highly recommend the article to both telecommuters and their managers.

The management challenge is not solely between the supervisor and the telecommuter. Coworkers can develop envy or mistrust in an employment environment where only a few are given the option to telecommute. Jealousy can impact team interaction and cooperation and lead to lowered morale. Therefore, if telecommuting is an option for one employee, it should be available to all.

7. Tools and Technology Make a Big Difference

Interestingly, technology isn't a barrier when it comes to telecommuting. In fact, it's what enables employees to work from home (except, of course, when the network or servers go down). Anyone with an Internet connection (and sometimes a VPN) can get the work done. But if you want your remote workers to succeed, you have to provide them with the tools they need, and you have to make sure they're fully integrated into enterprise workflows.

The minimal tool set for remote workers includes:

  • a good office phone with a voice-mail system capable of forwarding incoming calls from desk to home office
  • a reliable and fast Internet connection
  • VPN access to the corporate network
  • an intranet that gives access to the information needed for daily job functions
  • teleconferencing tools
  • presentation-sharing tools
  • applications that work remotely
  • an instant-messaging (IM) client on which the team standardizes

IM is a particularly useful tool for remote workers and their managers. It helps telecommuters stay connected to the office and their peers. It also enables others to "see" the remote employee at work via an IM screen. The other advantage of IM is that it enables part-time employees to be available more often, so employers of those part-time workers can potentially get more out of their part-time staff. (And as a longtime telecommuter myself, I suggest you include on that equipment list a good office chair and perhaps even a webcam.)

When you set up the VPN and other company software, be sure that it works with more than Windows. Even if your company is a Microsoft shop, telecommuters—especially those who are required to use their own computers—will employ whichever operating system they personally prefer. This may require that the company purchase additional VPN licenses to support, say, Mac OS X.

Reporter's note: One issue that telecommuters raised only indirectly, but from my own experience bears addressing, is: Who pays for all of those tools? See the sidebar, Out of Pocket: Financial Questions for Telecommuters and Managers," which enumerates questions you should answer.

Figuring out the software and services that a team needs isn't always an easy process. Expect to devote some time to finding the resources you need. Christy Tucker, an instructional designer at Performance Learning Systems, telecommutes full time, as do her boss and the other members of her team. "The biggest thing facing our team now is just finding the tools and spaces to share and collaborate. ... I wish there had been some anticipation of the fact that we need a shared space to store and exchange files, not just e-mailing zillions of attachments back and forth."

It's important for the enterprise IT support department to actively help telecommuters. Judith Underwood, a software architect at Telelogic UK, emphasizes the importance of telecommuters being part of the infrastructure, and a remote worker's tech support needs being equal to an in-office worker. "The VPN is really important. We need to know when it's going to be down. We need to know where to go when we have problems setting up a new router at home," says Underwood. The IT department may be irked when a telecommuter's home computer setup doesn't match the standard office setup. It has to understand that a telecommuter whose VPN access is problematic isn't a minor annoyance; it's keeping her from getting work done.

For telecommuting to succeed, you may need to change, or at least examine, a team's workflow. For example, a team may be used to project tracking based on shouting over the cubicle partitions. With a telecommuter on staff, that won't work. You can and should use software that can help you track project progress. Then, nobody has to waste time asking for status reports that are clearly stored in a tracking spreadsheet on the shared network drive. "Most firms don't centralize their daily task data and business processes on a central webified portal or workflow application," says systems architecture consultant Dodds. "Thus, they feel the compulsion to meet in physical space, hashing over questions with which a central repository (blog, content management system, wiki, combinations) could easily deal." A company that provided a webified index to project documents would be far ahead of most firms' practices, adds Dodds.

Telecommuting provides significant benefits to the people who live the lifestyle, with unparalleled flexibility and power over their schedule (not to mention their wardrobes). It definitely helps enterprises too, since the company can hire the "right" person for the job without regard to relocation or hour-and-a-half rush-hour commutes. However, as in all things, there are trade-offs. To gain the benefits, IT managers must learn new people skills, establish new working styles and expand their understanding of worker productivity.

Senior Online Editor Esther Schindler has been telecommuting professionally for more than 15 years. She can't imagine working in an office in which she is expected to wear shoes, where she can't have a cat on her lap, and where she can't turn up the music as loud as she likes.

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