Tough questions to ask before you say “yes” to telework

Telecommuting is back on workers’ radars in a big way these days, thanks to gas prices that are a whopping 30 per cent higher this summer than last.

Wannabe telecommuters are lining up outside their bosses’ offices with work-from-home plans in hand, and many of them could get their wish this time around: According to WorldatWork, an association of human resource professionals, 40 per cent more employers are offering telework programs this year than last.

Should your IT employees be part of that burgeoning crowd?

If a telework program isn’t rolled out properly, it could lead to problems.

It’s certainly tempting to say yes. Increasing fuel costs and heightened corporate environmental consciousness are magnifying many of the benefits of telework, including conserving fuel (and money), reducing traffic congestion (and CO² emissions), and reducing space and energy use at the employer’s facility.

Employers also often find they’re better able to attract and retain talented employees with the flexibility and increased job satisfaction that telework programs offer.

All of that is driving “a huge amount of inquiries” from organizations looking to deploy more systematic, companywide telework programs, says Josh Holbrook, director of enterprise research at Yankee Group Research Inc.

That said, IT and telework don’t have an unblemished record of success. In 2006, Hewlett-Packard Co. ended teleworking arrangements for hundreds of its IT workers.

And early this year, Intel Corp. began requiring more than half the teleworkers in its IT group to report to the office at least four days a week. In both instances, the companies indicated that teleworking had had a negative impact on IT employees’ productivity and collaboration.

Although a few reversals of telework policy do not constitute a trend, those cases can and should sound a note of caution for technology managers who might otherwise be inclined to say OK to telecommuting.

Holbrook says: “These instances get attention because they cut against the grain. The trend is overwhelmingly in the other direction.” Nevertheless, in some instances managers or even whole business units have “gone rogue,” he says, allowing employees to work from home without the right technology, policies and procedures in place.

“It’s very possible for a well-meaning manager to shove the employee out of the corporate jet without a parachute,” Holbrook warns.

Some telework decisions are fairly obvious — most managers wouldn’t let a new, inexperienced employee telework until he had proven himself, for example — but there are other, more subtle aspects of a person’s character and a company’s culture that can make or break a telework arrangement.

We talked with telework experts and IT managers to find out some of these nuances. Before you say yes to telework, make sure you’ve asked yourself and your employees these tough questions.

1. Is full-time telecommuting a smart decision?

Some IT jobs will never be candidates for telework. Either the employee is physically required on-site — to repair client hardware, for example — or the job requires a lot of communication, interaction and collaboration with others, such as managing relationships between IT and business units.

Other times, the situation is less clear. The work can be performed remotely, but should it be?

Telework is best for those with task-oriented jobs and for people who need little face-to-face communication, says Scott Morrison, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “Can they get through a day’s work without leaving their desk?” he asks. “Then they can do their job remotely.”

But just because they can doesn’t mean they necessarily should. The most successful telework arrangements are those that still bring the worker into the office at least some of the time.

Dennis Cromwell, associate vice president for enterprise infrastructure at Indiana University in Bloomington, lets 10 to 12 of his 75 employees telecommute — but not every day. They are mostly systems and database administrators who work alone on the computer and communicate chiefly by phone and e-mail.

The arrangement has worked well, so well that Cromwell has cut the number of offices that one of his teams requires from six to two.

Still, he won’t allow anyone to telework 100 per cent of the time, except in rare circumstances, because he wants to keep informal communications flowing. “That’s the kind of relationship I think we’ll see more and more of,” says Cromwell. “Not somebody telecommuting 100 per cent of the time, but rather creating situations where someone will work from home one or two days a week.”

2. How will you define and measure performance?

Most experienced managers stress that you must establish “well-defined deliverables” for teleworkers, and then judge performance accordingly.

On the face of it, that approach seems simple enough. For task-oriented jobs, it’s easy to measure performance in terms of output. For an IT support person, for example, you might track how many tickets he handled per day and whether problems were successfully solved.

But such an approach implies that it doesn’t matter how much or little time it takes to do the job. And that raises a sometimes thorny question: Are you paying employees for their output, their time, or both?

Some people work faster or more efficiently than others, especially when working from home. If an employee hits his output working only four hours a day, is that a win-win situation, or poor use of a company’s business asset?

“People say they manage by results, but they also like to know whether the person is only active a few hours a day,” says Eric Spiegel, CEO and co-founder of software start-up XTS Inc. In a previous job as an IT manager, Spiegel had bad experiences allowing staff to telework. Members of his team were sometimes unavailable during work hours, and he had trouble scheduling meetings.

To avoid such problems, he says, you should decide upfront whether meeting deliverables is enough, or whether you will require employees to be at their phone and computer at certain times and for a certain number of hours.

3. Will creativity suffer?

Beyond the hours vs. output debate, there’s a larger question, one that pertains particularly to jobs where deliverables can’t be easily quantified: Are you getting the same level of intellectual investment from your remote employees as you would if they were in the office?

In software design, for example, innovation and creative ideas can be the most valuable output. Should you measure performance based on creativity? Will workers be more creative at home or less?

Perhaps you should measure based on quality rather than quantity. And if so, what constitutes high quality? The answers will depend on the type of job and the type of person. The important thing is to have a frank discussion of what’s expected — including intangibles like creativity — before you allow an employee to telework, with the understanding that the arrangement could be changed if agreed-upon measures decline.

Today, all seven of Spiegel’s employees telework. The difference, he says, is that they are all senior-level people whom he’s personally hired. Thanks to stock options and equity interest, they are highly motivated. As an added bonus, he sees no justification for office space at this point in his young company’s development.

Even so, he advises managers to proceed with caution. “If I had to go back and manage a support team at a Fortune 1,000 company, I’d take a different stance,” Spiegel says. “I’d want more control over what teleworkers are doing.”

4. How will telework affect collaboration?

Think about the culture of your organization and how the employee fits into it. Some people are naturally creative, innovative and inspirational, notes Robert Keefe, president of the Society for Information Management and senior vice president and CIO for Mueller Water Products Inc. They stimulate discussion and generate ideas, and others like to work with them.

“Some people are like the gel that holds the organization together,” says Keefe. The organization would lose something if that person worked remotely 100 per cent of the time. “That’s a very soft intangible, but something that’s often overlooked in team dynamics,” says Keefe.

Yankee Group’s Holbrook applauds managers who attend to the communication question. Some companies, he explains, are more reliant than others on informal communication, where an employee just walks down the hall to IT to solve a problem or hash out an idea. Moving a key IT employee out of that picture could upset that delicate balance.

Intel, for example, relies on a high level of collaboration, according to Intel CIO Diane Bryant. The company found that projects were much more efficiently completed when all the IT workers were at one site rather than spread out over two or more sites — or in remote locations.

5. What about employees “left behind” in the office?

Timothy Golden, associate professor in the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, published a study earlier this year suggesting that allowing some employees to telecommute can decrease job satisfaction for co-workers who remain in the office and increase the chances they will leave the company.

Golden studied a sample of 240 professional employees from a midsize company. The study found that the more people in the organization that teleworked, the less satisfied the office-bound employees were.

There could be several reasons for this, according to Golden. First, there are fewer opportunities for workers to get to know each other, which could impede good working relationships. Second, the office workers may find themselves bending to accommodate the teleworkers — for example, they have to schedule meetings around when teleworkers are going to be in the office.

And third, office workers may be more likely to be tapped for certain tasks simply because they are handy, whereas the teleworker is left undisturbed. “The teleworker may very well be available,” says Golden. “but they aren’t perceptually there in the moment.”

While telework has gone smoothly for the most part at Cox Enterprises Inc., that misperception of availability has been a problem, says John Bell, assistant vice president of information systems engineering at the broadband service provider.

“Someone will stop by an office, and the door is closed and the lights are out,” he relates. “People think he’s is not available or that they may be imposing if they call him at home.” To combat those missed signals, Cox has started requiring teleworkers to post their schedules on their doors so other staff members know when they are available.

Golden suggests other ways to ensure in-office employees are not inconvenienced by at-home colleagues, including requiring all employees to be in the office at certain times or on certain days; reshuffling responsibilities so office-bound employees aren’t dependent upon remote workers; and scheduling informal social times, separate from formal meetings, to reinforce trust and camaraderie among the entire workforce.

6. Do you have an exit strategy?

It may seem counterintuitive to be thinking about an exit strategy while you’re in the throes of trying to approve a telework arrangement, but experts like Keefe suggest that very thing.

Even as he’s hammering out details on how often an employee will need to come in to the office, Keefe puts a time limit on the teleworking arrangement. “You don’t want to set a false expectation that this is the way it’s always going to be,” he says.

“It’s really highly dependent on the role they are in currently, and things change.” A new department manager may prefer to have workers in the office, for example. Or an IT consolidation project might require employees to come back to the office.

Particularly if the person is a high performer who might come up for a promotion, it’s important to talk about the fact that he might need to return to the office when his role changes. Managers should also consider the possibility that telework can become, for some workers, too good of an offer — high performers might forego advancement, or even leave the company, in order to continue teleworking. “It becomes a lifestyle,” notes Keefe. “I’ve had a couple of key people leave the organization, so now I’m more cautious about that.”

Telecommuting tales

Managers and staffers, trade your telework war stories.

Ironically, the opposite situation can also occur: Employees who pushed for and received permission to telework may find it’s not as wonderful as they expected. They may feel lost, disconnected from the workplace and the office banter. Rather than admitting the mistake, they may look for work in another office.

In fact, there is a higher degree of churn among teleworkers today than in the past, according to Sean Ryan, an analyst at IDC. Statistics indicate that, for whatever reason, telework is not a permanent arrangement, he says. “They telecommute for a while, but then go back into the corporate world.”

Indeed, research from 2005 published in the Journal of Management suggests that allowing insufficiently screened employees to work more than three days out of the office results in long-term decreases in productivity and staff morale and increases in staff turnover “as they move on to jobs where they feel more included,” says Gartner’s Morrison.

In conclusion, the consensus among managers who’ve had it both ways is that telework is never an all-or-nothing proposition. Whether you ultimately decide to allow an employee to work from home full time or part time, or not at all, your decision should be the result of careful consideration of the needs of the worker, his colleagues and managers and — most important — the needs of your business.

Harbert is a Washington-based freelance journalist.

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