In “The Naked Sun,” he envisioned Solaria, a civilization whose telepresence technologies are as good as being face-to-face — superior, in fact, according to the Solarians, who have developed a collective phobia about breathing the same air, let alone making physical contact.
If you read some of the more enthusiastic commentary about telecommuting, you might think we’re all ready to be Solarians, only without the phobia.
Surveys show that telecommuting is a mixed bag.
In these difficult economic times, with companies grasping for any relatively painless way to save money, you’re going to be under pressure to help make the Solaria version of telecommuting happen at your company.
Sure it’s a bad idea, whether or not your employees are clamouring for it. Why do you care if they save time, money, wear and tear on their cars, psychic stress, or anything else?
If you can’t see them, they aren’t being productive and that’s all there is to it.
But in corporate North America, you can’t look like you’re against progress, no matter how bad progress really is.
1. Ignore the gaping holes in the save-big-money calculations
Virtual enterprises save lots of cash compared to their headquarters-laden competitors. If those clamouring for telecommuting expect similar benefits — hey, you aren’t the one making promises.
Never mind that companies can’t just flip a switch and virtualize. Never mind that you’ve already built out more office space than you need, now that the first round of layoffs is over and your lease won’t elapse for years. Never mind that the company will have to invest real cash to create a professional telecommuting infrastructure.
These factors will make the conversion a certain short-term money-loser, while the cost savings won’t materialize until long after the economic crisis has stabilized. But your “customers” are asking for telecommuting, and who are you to be sand in the gears of progress?
Let telecommuting gain some momentum. When the CFO figures out the financial reality, it will be all over. Nothing kills a corporate initiative better than disillusionment.
2. Keep HR out of it
An employee’s home office is their place of work, which means their employer is responsible for ensuring a safe work environment. So if you involve HR before you allow telecommuting, they’ll require ergonomically sound home offices.
If you ignore HR and just ask forgiveness later, you might get lucky. If you aren’t, an isolated employee might trip over the cat while walking to the home office and file a workers compensation claim, alerting HR that they better become involved.
But if you’re lucky, nothing untoward will happen until a bunch of repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) are well on their way to requiring surgery.
3. Don’t require a separate home office — leave it up to the employee
Being a benign sort of manager, you certainly don’t want to come across as coercive. This is a benefit, after all. If an employee wants to work at the kitchen table, why should you object? It’s a free country.
And when, eventually, an important client or a highly placed executive is on the phone with a telecommuting employee and hears a dog barking in the background or a child’s voice whining, “Why can’t you play with me, Daddy?” — in fact, you never actually said you thought telecommuting was a good idea, did you?
4. Make mobile phones the work-at-home standard
If the employee has to add a second landline for their home office, they might expect you to pay for it. But everyone has a cell phone already, don’t they?
Here’s the dirty secret of mobile phones: They add as much as a 300-millisecond delay. Cell-to-cell calls have twice that, or more than a half-second wait between the time one person starts to talk and the other person hears them.
The best part: Nobody knows this. All they know is that the other person frequently interrupts them. It’s a constant, subtle irritation. People will dislike working with telecommuters, and they won’t even know why.
5. Make sure the employee has to cover all home office costs
You’ll be a budget hero. The company will save all ongoing expenses for the space telecommuters would otherwise need in the office, which is easily $5,000 a year each if you total everything up.
And because it’s the employee’s out-of-pocket expense, many will cheap out on such niceties as a decent chair or a real desk. This can help ensure a healthy crop of RSI complaints, among other benefits.
If you’re really good, you’ll also keep the help desk in the dark about your plans, to make sure it isn’t in a position to support large numbers of out-of-office employees.
If you’re even better, you’ll choose a VPN technology that relies on static IP addresses or is otherwise fragile, to make sure employees can’t connect to the corporate network reliably. This shouldn’t be difficult, because just about all of the VPN technologies you have to choose from are … well, let’s just say they’re far from what they should be.
6. Pilot telecommuting with marginal employees first
Telecommuting is a risk. You don’t want to expose your best employees during the proof of concept, so best to try it with the ones who slack off even when they’re in their cubicles.
It’s well known among those who have managed telecommuters that strong employees become even more productive, while already weak ones become even worse.
Even better, start with jobs for which it’s hard to tell if employees are doing anything useful or not — jobs that aren’t defined in terms of just a few, clearly identified work products.
At the end of the trial period, it will be clear the telecommuters failed to pull their weight.
7. Hold lots of meetings where several remote employees participate by teleconference
In-person meeting participants use body language to let everyone know they’d like some air time. Teleconferencing participants have to find a gap in the action and then barge in. It’s hard enough when there’s just one of them. Have several on the line and they’ll give up.
Do this often enough and even the most hardened remote employee will start coming in when meetings are scheduled.
An embellishment: Exclude off-site employees from impromptu whiteboard problem-solving sessions. It’s easy. It’s not on their calendar, by the time you’ve set up a WebEx session the spontaneity is lost, and anyway, no software solution is as quick and natural as a real whiteboard.
You can always tell the off-site employees what the answer is later on.
8. Remember that remote employees are always available
Remote employees are used to being at work when they’re at home, and your only contact with them is by telephone. And everyone knows two of the benefits of telecommuting are working in a bathrobe and on a flexible schedule.
You can be flexible too: Call during dinner time, at 11 p.m., whenever it’s convenient for you. This can be especially effective when you’re in different time zones.
Remember, if you don’t respect regular working hours as a boundary, neither will your remote employees, and that means the company will get even more work out of them.
9. Call remote employees only when you have a specific purpose
With remote employees, call when you have something specific to say or to ask. Especially, call on thin pretexts to verify the employee isn’t slacking off.
But don’t call on a regular basis to have the sorts of casual conversations you conduct with on-site employees. Make it policy: Remind all employees that telephones are business tools, not to be wasted on non-business-related conversations.
This way, nobody will waste their time and yours with pointless trust-building.
10. Make them second-class citizens
Employees who work on-site hear about career opportunities before they become official. They hear rumors of management shake-ups, budget cuts, executive departures, and so on that never are formally announced.
Employees who work on-site are immersed in the day-to-day informal interactions that constantly build and reinforce the company culture. Remote employees are freed from these distractions. Keep it that way so that they stay focused on their work.
Also, give plum, high-visibility assignments to on-site employees. They are, after all, always there when you need them.
And when performance appraisal time rolls around, limit telecommuter reviews to hard production numbers. The intangibles you rely on for on-site staff aren’t really relevant to telecommuters, are they?
Wrapping up the plot to kill telecommuting
If you use even some of these 10 steps, everyone will end up treating remote employees as second-class corporate citizens, the remote employees will know their place, and on-site employees will happily brave long commutes so that they don’t become invisible.
Any one of these 10 tactics might be enough to make sure your company fails to make telecommuting work. In combination, they’ll discredit the concept until long after you’re retired.
Acknowledgement: To prepare for this article, I asked the subscribers of Keep the Joint Running to tell me about their experiences telecommuting and managing telecommuters.
Nearly 350 were kind enough to send in very thoughtful and insightful responses.
They thought I was going to explain how to make it succeed. Little did they know!