A Crotchety Manager's View on Telecommuting

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I've been reading with some great interest -- as I usually do -- our Ann All's recent posts on the apparent corporate withdrawal from telecommuting, and of course the reality that employees still want to work from home, or wherever "tele" might find them.


Before I go on, let me say that I really like telecommuting -- when it's done properly -- and have really liked it for the better part of 15 years. Many of our employees here at IT Business Edge, including Ann, as she likes to brag, telecommute.


I've actually encouraged some of our staff to telecommute more than they already do, and, of course, as a publisher we rely on the efforts of staff members and freelancers across the country in all aspects of our business. It would be even more stupid for us to balk at telecommuting than it would be for most companies, and it's a generally stupid, stubborn stance to take.


THAT SAID, I completely understand the burnt-fingers reaction many companies seem to be having to telecommuting.


Firstly, there really is no substitute for interpersonal contact when it comes to collaboration and team-building. Even our telecommuting employees who live near the home office maintain regular hours in the building and attend team meetings. Social-networking software can be a nice augmentation or a valiant stab at a surrogate -- depending on how far-flung your team members happen to be -- but it's just not the same, no matter how many waves of unfulfilled Web x.0 promises dominate the headlines. There, I said it.


Secondly, telecommuting is not for everybody. If it were, companies would not be recoiling from it, despite workers' and staffing companies' contentions that telecommuting makes everybody more productive. Companies like productivity. As much as I like telecommuting for my teams, I can't do it myself, beyond an hour or so in the evening just to catch up. The great joys/banes of my existence -- my TV and my fridge -- are at my house. I have to get away.


Thirdly -- and this is where I fulfill the title's promise of "crotchety" -- many employees (and mangers) get confused about what the "tele" in telecommuting means. Before any company, team, or manager enters into a telecommuting arrangement, all parties need to recite this mantra until it becomes an assumed part of the working relationship:


Telecommuting does not mean employees get to recalculate their schedules on a day-by-day basis.


Seems simple, I know, but when I've seen telecommuting blow up, it's almost always been because of this basic, but pernicious, misunderstanding.


Telecommuting means that employees don't have to take the time or -- and this is obviously becoming a weighty issue -- spend the money to come into the office. That's it. Certainly, employees can spend that saved time and money as they see fit -- that's the big advantage for employees of telecommuting.


However, many employees misunderstand, at least until they get into it, telecommuting to imply a whole new world of flexibility in terms of planning out their days around family obligations and extra-office activities. This, of course, sounds great, until a manager or team member needs to reach an employee who has flexed away from his computer for a spell. Bad things happen -- ah, the stories I could tell.


Of course, smart employers have learned they actually do need to be flexible in working out schedules with employees that respect and embrace family obligations and extra-office activities. We try to be as flexible as we can here at IT Business Edge. It's just good business.


But there still has to be a predictable schedule, and employees have to stick with it, predictably.


Not every employee's schedule needs to be the same. Since I'm using Ann as my example of telecommuting done right, I'll tell you that since her primary responsibilities center on writing, her schedule is based largely on deliverables. We don't care if a post comes in at 5 a.m. or 8 a.m., so long as it is in by a deadline of 10 a.m. so other team members can move it on down the line. Obviously, that imparts a good deal of flexibility, but it's the nature of that job, regardless of where it's done. Other employees further down the process chain simply can't enjoy that degree of scheduling flexibility.


The best guideline I could propose is as follows:


Assuming they have the same responsibilities, a telecommuting employee's schedule should be no more flexible than an in-office employee's schedule.


If your team gets an hour for lunch between noon and 2 p.m., then everybody gets an hour for lunch between noon and 2 p.m. If a telecommuting employee elects to use that hour to do a load of laundry or run to the neighborhood market, hooray for telecommuting.


This is not a call for all managers to be hard-cases about scheduling. If any employee has obligations or needs that can be met with a little flexible scheduling, then you'd be smart to work as hard as possible with that employee to work out a routine that meets the needs of the employee and the company. And of course, telecommuting can be a big component of making that schedule successful.


But there's got to be a schedule, and everybody has to stick to it, no matter where they work.