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.

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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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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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