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Summary:

As we’ve recently discussed, telecommuting and web work are becoming more popular. Inevitably, this leads to some backlash from those who prefer to preserve old ways of working. One example: a recent article in Computerworld titled “Get tough on telecommuting: 6 questions to ask before you […]

As we’ve recently discussed, telecommuting and web work are becoming more popular. Inevitably, this leads to some backlash from those who prefer to preserve old ways of working. One example: a recent article in Computerworld titled “Get tough on telecommuting: 6 questions to ask before you say yes.” While caution is a good thing, we think there are answers to all of these questions – and we’ll present them here to help you with your own skeptical manager.

Computerworld recommends that IT departments in particular should be cautious about agreeing to work-at-home plans proposed by their employees. While they don’t offer a firm recommendation against telecommuting, they do point out some prominent industry failures in this area, and hand out a set of “tough questions” for managers to ask themselves and their employees. While a poorly-structured telecommuting experience serves no one, a smart of motivated potential teleworker should be able to meet all of their objections head-on.

1. Full-time telecommuting can be a smart decision. If staying at home one day saves costs for both employer and employee, then staying at home five days is five times as good. If your job is done primarily via e-mail and telephone, you have those exact same tools at home to work with. Worries about remote employees not being able to keep informal communications open with their coworkers are overblown; with tools like Skype, Twitter, and instant messaging at their fingertips, some telecommuters are actually more a part of the team than those who are trapped in cubicles all day.

2. Deliverables can include time available. If you’re faced with a manager who worries that you’re going to do all your work in three hours and then vanish, you can negotiate “availability” as part of your job description. There’s no reason for a telecommuter to be out of touch, given the multitude of communications media we have available these days. Just as with traditional flexwork arrangements, you can establish core hours during which you’ll guarantee to be easily reachable. This should remove worries about scheduling meetings and taking calls from your coworkers.

3. A better working environment improves creativity. If your manager fears you’ll lose creativity by working at home, it’s simple enough to point out that the less you’re distracted by uncomfortable seating, hemmed in by tiny cubicles, and interrupted by coffee-breaking coworkers, the more chance there is that you’ll actually be able to focus on your work. Often this sort of objection, though, is just a way to say “I don’t think you’ll work if I’m not watching you” without actually saying it. That’s where you can come in with a plan for actually measuring your output – and a willingness to agree that you’ll modify or suspend the experiment if your productivity drops.

4. With the right tools, telework can make collaboration easier. If your team can’t gel to include key teleworkers in collaborative decisions, you’re likely not taking advantage of the many tools that the web has to offer. From videoconferencing to quick IM sessions to shared task lists to specialized tools like shared-session code editors, there are plenty of ways to collaborate even if you’re out of the office. In fact, the added features of these tools can even make collaboration easier than if you depend only on chance water-cooler meetings and formal planning sessions.

5. Teleworkers can do their share. If employees who are “left behind” resent teleworking, it may be just because they don’t see you working. You need to be prepared to take measures to make your work, and your availability, perfectly obvious. A culture of instant messaging is one easy way to ensure this; being across the city and being down the hall are the same if you’re just an IM away. It’s also possible to turn simmering resentment into a plan for teleworking that encompasses all employees that can work remotely, getting your coworkers on your side instead of resenting you.

6. Telecommuters can be team players. If your manager is worried that you won’t come back into the office if it becomes necessary, the easiest thing to do is to point at your past record of being a productive team member. Make it clear that you understand that there may be times when in-office presence is required for a special project or due to an organizational change. At the same time, though, if you’re pressured on this front you may want to think about the larger issues: if your manager doesn’t trust you, do you really want to keep working for them?

Finally, remember – you’re not completely devoid of leverage in a negotiation about potential telecommuting. Don’t be afraid to point out to your manager that this is an increasingly-accepted work trend, and that organizations that adopt an anti-telecommuting stance are going to find it increasingly hard to attract and retain the top workers.

By Mike Gunderloy

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  1. You are dead on with this and I, too was bemused by the ‘old ways’ pall that hung over the whole article. But as you address here the article provides a lot of the barriers that you will face.

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  2. I think you have to be careful with your number 1 recommendation. How full time telecommuting will impact your relationship with your co-workers and company has everything to do with how tech-savvy, and telecommuting savvy, those people and your company happen to be. For a small, geographically diverse startup, you have a culture that is built on telecommuting, and we have some industries that are successfully adopting their cultures to function healthfully in this fashion, but the large, majority of businesses are populated with people who, while they have email, are not culturally ready to treat remote workers in the same way they do the ones who they see daily. It’s a real shift. The danger for the remote worker is that, while they might well be productive and enjoy some of the benefits, they will exempt themselves from the day to day interactions that put them in consideration for projects and promotions. The “out of sight, out of mind” danger to their careers is authentic. So, if your corporate culture is web 2.0 compatible, great. But you’re in the minority right now.

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  3. Recently I’m having second thoughts about telecommuting. I agree with Peter that ‘old’ companies just aren’t ready for teleworking, and it’s actually hard to keep in touch with everyone while ‘not being there’ (at least it’s a lot faster if you’re there). But my doubts started elsewhere – in my motivation. Even if you’re in a hot startup it’s easier (for me) to keep energy and motivation up if I change environment from ‘home’ to ‘work’ (wherever that is) every day. I have trouble escaping ‘warm’ home atmosphere in the morning. I wonder how you do it Mike – how you keep your spirit up, and organization in place with kids running over your head and kitchen needing urgent cleaning. You seem to be handling it pretty well, as far as I could judge by reading your tweets. It’s a good topic for a full post I guess.

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