Telecommuting pros and cons

Managers shouldn’t shy away from offering telecommuting, but staff need to be aware of its risks and rewards.

Robert Half International recently surveyed 1,400 CFOs on the topic of telecommuting. Fifty per cent of those surveyed said telecommuting arrangements are the second-best recruiting inducement (after salary), and a full one-third of them classified it as the best incentive.

If this is accurate — and my experience is that it may be — progressive organizations should consider offering this option to staff whose tasks can support it. But I would caution against offering this benefit until you have thoroughly considered the deliverables you want from your telecommuting staff. You also should have a robust communication plan detailing when and how the benefit is to be implemented.

Telecommuting has become so prevalent that we are nearing the point where offering it is the politically correct course of action. The environmental movement loves it, as it takes cars off the road and makes offices smaller. The social movement applauds it, as it accommodates participation of single parents, the disabled, and older workers to entice them to delay full retirement. And staff embrace it, as it allows them to keep up with their jobs as the plumber comes to their house to do his. Let’s hope your staff does not bill at the same rate as my plumber!

I am a proponent of telecommuting. I do it a bit myself and allow my team to participate as long as their tasks are not compromised, and their position is one that can reasonably be done from home. But I do want to bring to light some challenges I’ve faced to help you offer it properly, and if you already do offer it, to help mitigate some challenges that may arise.  

Productivity and Availability

{advertisement} The biggest knock on telecommuting is the perceived loss of productivity due to unsupervised staff working from home. I would argue that most workers who are unproductive at home would likely be just as unproductive at the office. If anything, you may be gaining something by having them offsite where they can’t interrupt or disturb other staff members.

The best way to mitigate this concern is to establish an agreed-upon structure ahead of time that would assure both parties that assigned work is being completed. Something as simple as an e-mail to summarize what has been completed in the day or week should suffice in most circumstances.  

Like almost any initiative, establishing a list of measurable goals against which to track and prove success will help both parties. Probably one of management’s biggest concerns with telecommuting is the availability of staff when information is needed quickly. Work together to come up with the most effective communication vehicle (instant messenger, phone, text, etc.) and agreed-upon hours that staff must be available, and the arrangement should work.  

Corporate Culture Participation

When I set out to develop a new plan or strategy for my company, one of my first considerations is how to deliver the plan so my team will embrace it. I freely admit that when my team members work remotely, the connection required to ensure the deliverable and its importance is understood can, at times, feel compromised.

The more connected employees feel, the better they perform. Have you ever tried to announce a new direction or strategy with your team with no one but you in the room, and everyone else participating via conference call? When this happens to me, I often feel lonelier than Eleanor Rigby. If you can’t read workers’ body language and other non-verbal feedback to determine whether your vision has been received, you can’t be certain you will get the buy-in needed for success.  

To perform at our best, humans need to feel connected not only to each other, but also the work we are doing. Full-time telecommuters will struggle to understand and fully participate in the corporate culture if they are consistently removed from it. Whenever possible, staff should be in the office a couple of days a week just to ensure they are on the same page with their co-workers and the organization. My experience is that people generally work harder for people they know and like.

Growth Opportunities

The most rewarding part of my job is fostering relationships among my colleagues, staff, and our vendors. All of these relationships have been strengthened thanks to interpersonal connections that allow for a level of respect and understanding, which, in turn, makes the various parties want the others to be successful. There is no question in my mind that these same strong relationships would not be as solid if I had only been able to create and build on them over the phone, Skype, instant messenger, etc. Even in our digital age, personal face-to-face connections still matter the most.  

A survey of 1,300 executives from 71 countries, as cited in the eighth edition of the business textbook Organizational Behavior, indicates that respondents believe people who telecommute are less likely to get promoted. To me, this makes sense, because when managers hand out urgent or important work, it will likely be offered to those they can see and work closely with on a daily basis. If you choose to telecommute, you may be choosing to be forgotten at times. You may love working from home, but it will keep you out of sight (and perhaps out of mind) and that is usually not good for someone with an aggressive career plan.

Success in Your Pyjamas

If you have read all this and feel tele-commuting is good for you or your staff, remember to do the upfront work to ensure the path to success is laid out and communication is clearly outlined. Ensure your telecommuting employees’ work becomes objective- and goal-oriented, with established delivery milestones. Create clear monthly and weekly objectives and ensure employees produce status reports or track their deliverables online. Employees will then be enabled to do what they need to do, and the good ones will do it regardless of whether they work from home.

Now, if my boss is reading this, I wonder if he is making the correlation between last Friday when I “worked from home” at my 
day job and coincidentally finished this column?

Doug Caton is a Victoria IT manager.