Telework Requires Advance Effort, Planning - but It's Worth It

Slide Show

Six Tips on Introducing a Telework Program

Important tips to ensure your telecommuting program is a success.

I've been a regular telecommuter for more than a decade now. I love it, so much so that it would be difficult for me to take a job that didn't afford me the option.


It's especially important to me because I have a son in elementary school, who still likes having mom come to school events and even welcomes her occasional lunchtime presence at his cafeteria table. (He's 10, so I don't have many of those years left!) As someone who abhors driving in traffic, I'm happy to avoid it. I generally get more done when I'm at home. I can do a few household chores in between blog posts.


As much as I enjoy telecommuting, sometimes it can be a challenge. It's not always easy for me to stop working at what should be the end of the day. I miss the personal contact with my coworkers. Technical issues are a far bigger pain without an IT person right down the hall.


It turns out other telecommuters have many of the same likes and dislikes about telework. A group of silicon.com staffers recently wrote about their annual work-at-home experiment, an exercise undertaken during National Work From Home Day. The staffers were asked to rank their experiences on a scale of one to 10 in four different categories: productivity, concentration, management and overall. None of the seven participants ranked the Overall experience less than a seven.


I generally work at home three or four days a week and visit the office once or twice. A couple of my IT Business Edge colleagues never come to the office. (Doing so would be quite impractical for some of them, like Singapore-based Paul Mah.) A few others telecommute, but less often than I do. I didn't employ a ranking system but asked several of them to share their impressions of telecommuting.


Silicon.com staffers gave their highest scores in the Concentration category. This isn't surprising, since it looked like most of them worked alone at home. Like me, I expect they find it easier to focus without the distractions of overheard office conversations and unexpected interruptions. However, I do find it much more difficult to concentrate on work on the rare occasions when my spouse and/or child are home.


Senior reporter Natasha Lomas shared her house with an attention-hungry cat. And sub-editor Emma Bayly was distracted by a pile of dirty dishes in her kitchen. Oddly enough, ITBE colleague Lora Bentley mentioned both of those things as well, telling me she works best in a quiet room at her church near her home, "where I can still get a little human interaction but don't have the distractions of the cat and household chores." (Lora's solution might work for others with similar issues who can find a quiet corner of a library or other neutral location with few distractions where they can plug in a laptop and get some work done.)


In addition to feline distractions, Lomas mentioned her boyfriend left her with a list of household tasks, apparently assuming it'd be no big deal for her to do them since she was "working at home anyway." ITBE's Loraine Lawson struggles with this, telling me, "You have to learn to ignore the phone calls from friends and relatives who don't get the 'work' part of work from home. Then you feel bad and they get upset, because they know you're home. Boundaries are hard to maintain."


ITBE's Susan Hall finds she gets more done at the office than at home, because her dog, husband (who's at home during her work day) and son are distractions. ITBE's Carl Weinschenk doesn't let himself get too distracted because, he told me, "I am a freelancer, and can't afford to goof off to the extent that some full-time workers do."


Missing personal interaction with others was mentioned as a downside to telecommuting by nearly all of the silicon.com employees and my ITBE coworkers. I find it helps if you can leave your home office for lunch with a friend instead of eating leftovers from a carryout carton or Tupperware container as I (sadly) often do when home. Silicon.com reporter Tim Ferguson did this on his work-at-home day and said it helped make up for the lack of office banter with coworkers.


Though Carl finds lack of office camaraderie "a big negative," he said it is "more than balanced off for me by seeing my kids far more and, especially when they were younger, being able to pick them up at school and be a bigger presence generally." Much like me, he finds telework an especially helpful practice when his spouse is working and his children are home from school, due to illness or a holiday.


Several silicon.com staffers and some of my ITBE colleagues mentioned technical issues. Ferguson noted his work-at-home experience was smoother than previous ones because he was "more accustomed to using the tools needed when WFH, and know how to overcome the problems I've faced in the past." I do think it requires some time to adjust to performing office tasks at home and to determine which tools will make it easier. For that reason, I think it makes sense to begin telecommuting on a trial basis and during a period in which folks aren't facing any critical deadlines or involved in complex projects.


As ITBE contributor Rob Enderle wrote back in March (and I've mentioned myself in previous posts), telecommuting works best for those with task-based jobs that involve mostly individual effort and easily measurable output. (Writing is certainly one of those jobs.)


While team projects are tougher to handle, wrote Rob, they can run smoothly if tasks are divided into clearly defined parts. Results must be measured regularly "so that folks falling behind can be identified and helped before they put the effort into critical trouble." (This is true of office projects as well, but it's even more important when some or all team members work remotely.)


As can be deduced from this post, telecommuting requires effort and advance planning from both employers and employees. But it's worth it. Susan cited some recent surveys that illustrate telework benefits. For instance, 71 percent of respondents to a Skype survey said allowing remote work helps them attract potential employees, while 67 percent said it helps with retention. She also pointed to some excellent telework resources in our IT Downloads section (formerly the Knowledge Network), including a telecommuting IT checklist and a sample telework policy and agreement.