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Telecommuting: A dozen prerequisites for success

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An excellent way to make a yes/no decision is to assume the answer is yes.

Then ask yourself, “Now what?”

Take telecommuting. Based on my recent columns on this subject (search for “telecommuter” in the KJR archives), it’s clear you need to do more than just tell employees to work at home from now on. But how much more?

Here’s how much more, thanks to the 300+ correspondents who provided information for this series:

  • Telecommuting isn’t for everyone (part 1): Being productive in a home office requires a level of self-discipline not all employees have. In general, good employees become more productive; already weak employees become weaker.
  • Telecommuting isn’t for everyone (part 2): Jobs with clear, tangible outputs are better suited to working from home. So are “responsive” jobs — Service Desk responsibilities, for example. Conversely, high-touch, “relationship” positions … business analysts are an example … don’t work very well remotely.
  • Telecommuting isn’t for everyone (part 3): Companies that engage in eCommerce have to be careful, because even one home office in a state constitutes nexus, meaning the company must collect sales tax from all customers ordering from that state.
  • Telecommuting requires better managers: Managers who assume work they don’t see is work that doesn’t happen, or even worse, managers who mistake activity for results, handle telecommuters poorly. You need managers who recognize what’s important, who consciously and frequently communicate with remote employees, and who remember to maintain their relationships with them, and not just monitor work.

    Just as important, managers need to recognize the importance of maintaining a sense of teamwork among employees who rarely see each other, and creatively foster it.

    Don’t leave any of this to chance: Provide telework management training and support, and find ways to extend your own open door policy to remote employees.

  • Get everyone face to face: Every month or so, schedule a mandatory on-site meeting. People need to reconnect from time to time so they remember each other as human beings and not just on-screen inputs.
  • Instant messaging is vital: It’s the closest equivalent telecommuters have to poking their heads into a buddy’s cubicle to ask a quick question. Instant messaging is also the easiest way to implement presence, and in a team environment, letting employees signal their availability when physically separated is essential.
  • Web conferencing is vital: Viewing the same displays, pointing, sketching, and otherwise mimicking what teams can do when face to face with a whiteboard or flip charts in front of them allows successful remote collaboration. Teleconferencing more than two remote employees is just pretending.
  • Choose your VPN carefully: And be prepared to troubleshoot. Inexplicably, VPN technology continues to be fragile. It fails frequently and isn’t always easy to fix.
  • Virtualize the desktop: If a remote employee’s laptop fails, they’ll be down much longer than an employee whose cubicle is in the same building as the spares inventory.

    VMWare has a particularly nifty solution (on paper at least) called ACE. Unlike Citrix, which runs on centralized servers, ACE pushes a completely configured and centrally controlled virtual desktop onto the employee’s system, and keeps it up to date with your changes. It’s a particularly good solution for mobile employees, who can use the real machine for personal use, the virtual machine for corporate use, and either one in the air when there’s no network available.

    This is not an endorsement — I haven’t used ACE personally and can’t testify that it works as advertised. I’m endorsing the concept, which I find far superior to server-side virtual desktops.

  • Provide land-line phones: Get face-to-face with a friend. Call their cell phone from your cell phone. Talk. The delay can be as much as 300 milliseconds. That’s enough to interrupt the flow of a conversation.

    Multiply that by the number of employees on a teleconference. Very bad.

    Give remote employees land-lines — ideally, using a technology that makes their land-lines remote extensions of the corporate PBX.

  • Provide “hoteling” work areas: Remote employees, and also many mobile ones don’t need a dedicated cubicle, but do need a place to park, plug in, hang out, and work when they are on site.
  • Technical support: Make sure the Service Desk and Desktop Support are prepared to take on the added burden of assisting telecommuters. Remote isn’t just like down the hall only farther.

Is telecommuting worth it? Turn the question around instead: Are you prepared to take these steps?

If not, you’ve decided telecommuting isn’t for you or your organization.

Comments (5)

  • Nice site. There’s some good information on here. I’ll be checking back regularly.

  • “Telecommuting isn’t for everyone (part 1): Being productive in a home office requires a level of self-discipline not all employees have. In general, good employees become more productive; already weak employees become weaker.”

    Wow, don’t let HR know about this one, it might become another GE ‘selection method’!

  • Great list for us telecommuters !


  • Bob,
    Thanks for an excellent article (series). You did an excellent job wrapping up and giving advice.

    I was thinking the perfect solution to telecommuting would be the telepresence as shown in “Revenge of the Sith” during the meeting of the Jedi Masters. Of course, time delays don’t happen in the movies, but, it was cool…


  • Somewhere in this discussion it should be noted that the opposite of telecommuting is not necessarily working together in the company office. I’m sorry to have missed your original survey, because I represent another facet of remote work. Our department of 14 is spread across the US, and for many of us work is remote whether we’re at home or in the office (I split the week between them). Travel budgets being what they are, one face-to-face meeting a year is a luxury, but aside from that I agree with most of your points.

    The bullet about phones tempts a digression on what I consider the true bane of remote work: bad teleconferences. Whether it’s the dog barking in the background, the loud conversation in the next cubicle, the side conversations, or the traffic noise on the cell phone, they have become truly dreadful.

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