Thirteen years ago, I embarked on a personal and professional adventure when I accepted a job in the Boston area while living in California, with the intention of telecommuting full time. The forward-thinking company that hired me (which happens to publish Computerworld) recognized that it could hire the best people if it cast its hiring net nationally. Now, of course, telecommuting is a norm and a perk that many IT professionals have come to expect. Still, it's not a given in all companies.
Based on more than a decade of experience, here are my observations and suggestions about telecommuting, some of which may surprise you:
- For self-motivated employees, telecommuting means a productivity boost. Focused and dedicated individuals will get far more work done at home than in an office.
- Telecommuting improves job satisfaction and loyalty for employees who want to do it and are well suited to the arrangement.
- Some employees will prefer to come to the office because home is not conducive to work. The key is to have the flexibility to support the differing work styles of various employees.
- Organizations that fail to allow flexible work arrangements will find it increasingly difficult to attract the best candidates.
- In some organizations, telecommuters face limited promotion opportunities because "managers" must work in an office. If you are building a virtual organization, the same opportunities should be open to everyone. It's harmful to the company if telecommuters are relegated to certain jobs by virtue of where they work.
- It's impossible to "check up" on telecommuters, and you shouldn't even try. If you don't trust people and you don't feel confident that you can measure their performance, don't allow telecommuting. Don't call telecommuters at 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. to see if they are in the office. Respect that people have different work styles. Some may like to get into the office a few hours early but take a two-hour lunch. As long as they are available when they need to be, be satisfied. Focus on outcomes, not work styles.
- New employees who telecommute should be assigned mentors to help them navigate issues that are unique to telecommuters, such as connecting from home.
- Companies are saving a bunch of money on office space as a result of telecommuting. As working from home becomes more widespread, employees will expect to be compensated for the costs of running their home offices. Today, companies typically pay for things like phones and high-speed Internet connections, but not utility costs or rent. Expect that to change in the next 10 years.
- The ideal arrangement is to have the employee come to the office at least one day a week, so that the individual can develop an understanding of the company and its processes.
- Organizations that allow telecommuting must have better work and management processes than those that expect workers to come to an office every day. The flexibility of telecommuting requires more rigor in the area of business processes. For example, impromptu meetings are just about impossible in a virtual work environment, so planned meetings and formal processes become essential. Otherwise, you risk communicating only by e-mail.
- Organizations can feel confident about telecommuters' performance, provided the performance metrics are well defined and tracked. Many employees who telecommute have performance goals that are quite tangible -- almost quotalike.
- Companies with flexible telecommuting policies tend to develop a more diverse workforce, which is good for business.
- Organizations that depend on a high degree of collaboration among employees must support telecommuters with the right tools and technologies. In the early days, we used Internet e-mail, and we uploaded text files using pcAnywhere. Today, of course, the technology is much more advanced for supporting virtual collaboration. Use it.
- Telecommuting should be considered a privilege, not a right. Too many companies have applied a blanket approach, allowing everyone the same telecommuting status. The truth is that not all employees are self-motivated or honest.
In the early days of telecommuting, I was an evangelist. Now I'm a bit more pragmatic about it. In the main, telecommuting is a win-win for employees and employers. However, it also presents unique challenges that some organizations are simply not prepared to face.
Barbara Gomolski, a former Computerworld reporter, is a vice president at Gartner, where she focuses on IT financial management.