Almost twenty years ago, before it was fashionable, IVP’s first telecommuter, Dan Reid, set up shop two thousand miles from the home office. We thought it was an incredibly high-tech arrangement since we could communicate by mail, by phone, by fax and by CompuServe–a company that gave us the amazing capability of allowing two PCs (one in Seattle and one in Downers Grove) to exchange data and files via the phone lines. It was whacked-out futuristic in our minds. We actually managed in this primitive arrangement, if you can believe it, for a full five years before the internet connected us all in 1995.
Since then any number of IVP employees have entered the ranks of the telecommuting. But it takes more than technology to make telecommuting successful. Here’s some of the factors we’ve kept in mind that have helped it work for us.
1. Those who e-commute must be self-starters. Those who need external structure or systems or encouragement to do their best probably aren’t cut out for this. Those with internal drive and motivation can make it work.
2. Working at home also means reduced social interaction. Those who opt for this need to recognize this potential downside and find ways outside work to compensate. An employer needs to be aware of potential reductions in productivity as a result.
3. But there can also be an upswing in productivity. When someone isn’t interrupted by the latest office gossip and doesn’t have to attend every single meeting someone schedules, the large blocks of focused time can result in a lot of work getting done. Ever notice how much you get done when you come into the office on a Saturday when no one is around? That can be a telecommuter’s experience five days a week.
4. Teleworkers need to know the organization. Our basic policy is that we won’t initially hire employees into telecommuting positions. They need to have worked for us already. It’s very important for us that employees know not only our systems but also our ethos and values. It’s almost impossible to catch either over state lines. In addition, working in the office for a while allows managers to evaluate better how well suited people might be to working on their own.
5. It’s important for management to realize the cost of hiring a new employee. If someone needs to move for personal reasons (e.g., a spouse gets a new job), an employer could lose a year and a half of productivity. It can easily take three to nine months to hire someone new and another nine to twelve months to get reasonably trained. It could save many tens of thousands of dollars to keep an experienced person on the job. Losing a quality employee can also means losing years of experience and networks, the cost of which is hard to calculate.
6. Telecommuters need to regularly reconnect with the home office. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies both to the telecommuter and to everyone at the main office. Some jobs may require monthly visits. Others can do with three to four visits a year. Yes, there is extra travel expense. But, noting point four above, it can be much cheaper than replacing a productive employee.
7. A supervisor needs to visit the telecommuter too. It’s important to see their work space and evaluate their processes and procedures. Making a visit also communicates their value to the company. Annual visits are probably a minimum.
8. Obviously, have clear, measurable performance goals. It’s important for those across the hall. It’s even more critical for those across the country.
9. Not everyone can be a telecommuter. Some companies have actually created themselves this way. Five different people in five different cities. And that can probably work for a while, depending on the type of business. But in an established firm, the reality is that some work is always created for those left behind by every telecommuter that leaves. Continuity and cohesiveness can suffer as well. There are probably going to be limits on how many telecommuters any team can handle. Managers who start down the road of allowing telecommuters should probably have in mind the maximum number they can have under them.
10. Not every job lends itself to telecommuting. I’d like to see what a telecommuting warehouse employee looks like.
11. Telecommuting can be green. The fewer people driving to work, the less gas burned. It not only saves commuting costs for the employee but other office costs for the employer. As FastCompany.com reported, Sun Microsystems “has persuaded 18,000 of its 34,000 employees to work from home–not just as a money-saving tactic (Sun has been able to close two Silicon Valley campuses, trimming $70 million in expenses lastyear), but also to slim the company’s environmental footprint.”
12. Having a policy open to telecommuting can give you as an employer a competitive advantage in hiring over organizations that are less flexible.
With guidelines like these, you can have a win-win situation. Employees are happy because they can live in a place of their own choosing and still do the work of their choosing. Employers can also be happy because they have experienced, happy and (they hope) even more productive employees.