The trouble with telecommuting

Telework can change office dynamics in ways you hadn't anticipated. Here are six questions to ask before you say yes.

1. Should full-time telecommuting be an option?

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, "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 via 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, because he wants to keep informal communication flowing, he won't allow anyone to telework 100 percent of the time, except in rare circumstances.

2. How will you define and measure performance?

Most experienced managers stress that you must establish well-defined performance measures 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 cases he handled per day and whether problems were successfully resolved.

But such an approach implies that it doesn't matter how much 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 that employee?

"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. In a previous job as an IT manager, Spiegel had bad experiences allowing staffers 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.

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Tam Harbert

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