There has been much hullabaloo regarding Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! and her doing away with telecommuting in her company. The result has been other organizations either following suit or re-evaluating of corporate telecommuting (teleworking) practices throughout the country. We all know that telecommuting one form or another is something that has been around for a while. Some employees work remotely part-time and some do it pretty much full-time. Telecommuting is not only a convenience, but in the right situation, might facilitate uninterrupted productivity. Some are quick to make the assumption that telecommuters are slackers and those who work in the office are not. Or, that telecommuting reduces overall productivity because of adding to management’s burden. But as we know, these notions often come with exceptions.
The Pros of Telecommuting: Telecommuting offers employees the flexibility to work remotely. This reduces stress and commuting time for staff. For the organization, it might reduce the need for office space and allow staff to be productive outside of traditional business hours. Those concerned with the environment or traffic are proponents of telecommuting. Many employees today have family responsibilities, whether children, parents, or other family members. This arrangement facilitates getting more work done, as they can work closer to the recipients of their care and don’t have to spend time and energy commuting. It is also quite possible that if employees are able to do work in a Starbucks or at home, that might allow for greater creativity and uninterrupted work. Having such an option in place can be a positive demonstration of trust by management in its staff. A subsequent benefit to the organization might be an increase in retention and a decrease in turnover.
The Cons of Telecommuting: Telecommuting presents certain challenges for management to oversee and keep track of employees and their work. Employees might not be as available to managers as they would if physically seated in their offices. There might also be costs associated with procuring the technology necessary to make remote work happen, as well as disconnects when technology fails.
I myself have managed telecommuters and sometimes work remotely as well. For the most part, it has been positive. So, here are my 10 parameters for telecommuting, if such an arrangement is going to be successful:
(1) What does your job description say?: In many respects, the success of a telecommuting arrangement is dependent on a person’s job. What tasks and functions do you perform? The answers to this question will likely dictate the efficacy of a viable program. Some people can take their work home with them. But, I would not recommend such an arrangement for police officers or prison guards. One simple question here is what percentage of your total job description must absolutely be done in the physical office together with other staff. The truth is that even when your are sitting at your cubicle, much of what you are doing is virtual or otherwise digital, devoid of any direct touch. How many people text or email others at work, even when in the next cubicle? So, there might not really be a difference between sitting in the next office or 10 miles away. Therefore, these paradigms really need to be examined with a level of intellectual honesty, looking at the big picture.
(2) Compartmentalization: Related to job description, one consideration is whether your work flow can be compartmentalized. This means whether customer and co-worker contacts can be assigned to certain days of the week, freeing up blocks of time to allow for doing work elsewhere.
(3) Technology: Whether an individual employee can effectively telecommute or not is contingent on his or her possession of the technology that will allow for remote work. In today’s terms, the technology requirements will likely include phone, voice-mail, e-mail and high-speed Internet. One specific tool of accessing a work station from afar is Logmein. Smart phones, tablets, and notebooks have certainly increased connectivity, for good and for bad. With technology, both management and staff need to be sensitive to data and information security concerns, whether digital and hard copy. There have been horror stories about laptops with sensitive information being lost or stolen, and the fear that information may have gotten into the wrong hands.
(4) Discipline: The discomfort that management has with telecommuting is often dictated by both reachability and distrust. As for distrust, the truth is that telecommuting arrangements are probably not best for someone who cannot work independently at home. Some are prone to succumb to frequent distractions, be they sensory, digital, or having to chase Billy running around the house with crayons and scissors (for some reason, it’s always a kids named “Billy” who gets the bad rap. ) Of course, this same concern will apply even when an employee is in the office, as there are many times when direct supervision does not exist. Distractions include other co-workers, web surfing, and social media. Are you disciplined to be checking your email and voicemail on a regular basis, as you would if seating at your desk at work?
(5) Privilege vs. Entitlement: Telework arrangements in whatever frequency they might be established must be viewed by employees as a privilege. Given the default position of a requirement to be in the office during business hours, this flexibility is a departure from the status quo. Employees granted this privilege must realize that there is a cost to management for this flexibility, and not take it for granted.
(6) Who are your customers?: Part of any business workflow is based on who your customers are. Customers might be retail customers, clients, vendors or even “internal customers” from other departments. While you can get your work done, can you still be responsive to customers in a time sensitive way? How accessible are you to customers? When are you reachable? And how “seamless” is your virtual space as compared to when you are physically in the office?
(7) Management support: As with anything in (organizational) life, having buy-in from management is critical for any program to succeed. A good business case for how a telecommuting arrangement will benefit the organization must be presented. Those requesting it must engender trust, both before and during the telework arrangement. This is especially the case if there are different generational cohorts in the workplace with differing values. It is certainly possible that management may have a more traditional “I want you in the office” orientation, while employees have been nurtured with a more virtual one.
(8) Co-worker support, including subordinates: In addition, your peers and those who work for you need to support such an arrangement. Co-workers are often dependent on you for expertise or other information throughout the day. Therefore, there should be communication channels in place for instant access, the same way that would exist if you are in the office. If you are a supervisor, then you have to be confident that your direct reports are not spending their day buying shoes at Zappos. Here, you would have to earn their trust that you are not doing the same from home. The operative concept here is that of equity. When such an arrangement is made available to one person but not to another, that will not exactly build morale, unless it can be clearly justified through differences in job descriptions.
(9) Policy: In order to make this work, and to protect both employees and management, it is critical that organizations establish formal telecommuting policies. Such a policy should be clearly available as part of the on-boarding process. It should also be adhered to consistently without any double standards. The potential for treating people differently can be a morale buster, especially given the negative stigmas associated with those who telecommute, by those who either do not or cannot. One suggestion here which I would incorporate into policy is to formulate an agreement with an employee which has an initial probationary period. I would also recommend that a telecommuting arrangement never be indefinite, providing management with the prerogative to withdraw it, not just for abuse, but to account for changes in a job description.
(10) Contingencies for ad hoc telecommuting: Even when someone typically does not work remotely, it would be wise to build in contingencies to do so. Events such as illness, death, or weather-related situations happen more often than you’d think. The opportunity to maintain productivity during what would otherwise be downtime, is advantageous to the organization. This might be something to be addressed by policy as well.
The truth is that today, work itself is different from the way it was 10 years ago. Anytime someone checks his/her email and voicemail or answers a cell phone for a work related matter, it is telecommuting. Oftentimes, this is taking place outside of work hours or even when on vacation! As such, it creates expectations by management of accessibility, potentially 24/7. That’s good for management, but not so good for employees who in most cases are not compensated according to a 24/7 schedule (and if that is important, being “on call” should be spelled out in the job description and given credit within the context of compensation). This needs to be addressed through management addressing it in official policy or employees creating personal boundaries.
As with many things in life today, telecommuting is merely a medium that can be either positive or negative. If management and employees attend to the above 10 points and work together, that will increase the probability that this channel can yield a net-gain in productivity.