Does Telecommuting Work? Bosses, Employees Hammer out Terms
By Bruce Schneier
San Francisco - When you consider commute hours and the expense of travel, as well as traffic and its accompanying stress and pollution levels, there's a strong case to be made for telecommuting as beneficial to workers. The advantages for business may be just as compelling.
The Department of Public Works in both San Diego and Los Angeles County reported productivity increases of 34 percent among some telecommuters. Tom Peters devoted an issue of his newsletter On Achieving Excellence to telecommuting. In it he called telecommuting "the ultimate bureaucracy-bashing tool." He suggested managers seriously consider it because "you can find unexpected labor sources - the handicapped, your own people on sick or maternity leave [who you might otherwise lose], etc. - by allowing them to work at home."
Robert Wong, a marketing consultant at database developer ACIUS Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., said: "Many of our programmers telecommute. They don't need to interact with anyone else, and they are far more productive at home. We might see them once every other week."
Steve Elston is the telecommuting project manager at Pacific Bell in San Ramon, Calif. He manages the company's program to provide telecommuting solutions for its customers, as well as Pac Bell's own telecommuting program. He also supervises several telecommuters directly and telecommutes himself. "Telecommuting," he said, "is one of those rare things that has a benefit to society and a benefit to business and is a revenue opportunity for Pacific Bell."
Trust Your Staff?
Perhaps the biggest barrier to telecommuting is trust. How do managers know their employees are being productive, even though they are at home? Managers should make it clear that telecommuting employees have assignments to perform and deadlines to meet just as if they were in the office. "Managers have to focus on goals and time lines, not on attendance," said Cynthia Petty, Apple transportation evangelist.
Pacific Bell's Elston uses a telecommuting agreement to delineate managers' expectations for their telecommuters and telecommuters' expectations for their managers. The agreement lays out objectives and deliverables. With that kind of structure in place, it doesn't matter where people are physically located. "They could be on the moon," he said.
Elston said he finds that agreements can calm the fears of worried managers. "The agreement adds structure. I'm not making a blanket statement: 'Everybody go off and work at home,' " he said.
A manager has to trust his telecommuting employees not only to stay focused on work at home but also to be careful with confidential information. Chuck Fletcher, a production systems specialist for TV Guide Inc. of New York, supervises two occasional telecommuters. "You have to manage security," he said. "Certain things just can't be worked on at home."
In the end, the consensus among managers is that if you don't trust your telecommuters at home, you probably shouldn't trust them at work either. "At our level, most people are pretty disciplined," Fletcher said.
Equipping the Telecommuter
For a manager, one of the most difficult costs to justify is the extra hardware required for telecommuting. Molly Tyson, manager of instructional products at Apple, has 20 occasional telecommuters in her department. "We provide people with a basic computer system and modem at home," she said. "If you believe that telecommuting improves productivity, quality and job satisfaction, it's relatively easy to justify the cost of the extra hardware."
Besides the computer, telecommuters often need additional office equipment. Apple's Petty said: "The manager and the telecommuter have to determine equipment needs. Who is going to buy the computer and modem? Does the telecommuter need an additional phone line? A fax machine? This should all be discussed beforehand."
At the work location, managers have to make sure that employ es can dial into the corporate computer network. "We use Shiva [Corp.'s] NetModem and network access software," TV Guide's Fletcher said. "People will pull files off the AppleShare server and work on them at home."
Keeping Things Moving
"We try to instill in the telecommuters that they can't make extra work for others," Apple's Tyson said. "Our people know what needs to be done and how to get it done. The main thing is to make sure they get the information they need and give other people the information they need."
Sukey Hoho, catalog supervisor for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo., edits catalogs and annual reports from her home in Pinedale, Wyo. "With my Macintosh at home I dial into the company's network to download files and read electronic mail," she said. "I am just as accessible at home as I would be if I were in the office."
Managers often fear that they will be out of contact with their telecommuter. Apple's Petty stresses that managers can control the accessibility of their telecommuting employees. For example, "you can require them to return any phone call within five minutes," she said.
Besides being in touch with their managers, most telecommuters also need some interaction with other employees to accomplish their work. At Apple, "we try to schedule all department meetings on certain days, so the odds of there being some days when you don't have to come in are greater," Tyson said.
At Pacific Bell, telecommuters keep in touch through teleconferencing. "We have a monthly video teleconference at all of our larger offices," Elston said. "Telecommuters go to the facility closest to their home."
Telecommuters also make good use of the telephone and electronic mail. "Most of the ad hoc interaction at the office is done via voice and electronic mail, anyway," Elston said.
However, technology can't solve every communication problem. Sometimes even the simplest things become impossible. "You can't leave notes for people on their chairs anymore," Tyson said.
Telecommuting isn't for everybody. Some people are motivated when they know they are being monitored closely. Others don't like working at home because they are too easily distracted. "An individual who really enjoys the social aspects of the office would not be the kind of person who should telecommute," Petty said.
The job also must be suitable for telecommuting. "Does the job require face-to-face interaction? Does it entail work that can be done remotely? Does it require some specialized piece of equipment?" said Petty.
Ultimately, managers need to know how to select employees and jobs that are candidates for telecommuting. The package must work as a whole.
So You Want to Telecommute? Pacbell Guide Tells How to Set Up, Run Programs
Available free to Pacific Bell customers, the guide covers all aspects of telecommuting, such as how to supervise telecommuters and how to set up a satellite office at home. It includes advice on managing a program, problems to watch out for and suggestions for setting performance objectives that don't involve attendance. The guide also includes a sample agreement between the employee and the supervisor, screening and evaluation surveys for both employees and managers, as well as a sample telecommuting policy.
To get a copy, call Steve Elston at Pacific Bell at (510) 823-0609.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc.