Five ways to make telecommuting work

by Michael Haberman on July 24, 2014 · 3 comments


There are many benefits to allowing employees to telecommute.

There are many benefits to allowing employees to telecommute.

I sat a dinner last night with my wife and a friend and past co-worker of her and was on the fringes of their conversation as they caught up on business. He is still working for the company that let her go in 2013. They talked about opportunities that she had fed his way. One was a job that needed his skill set to do a job that required frequent travel. He lives in the Midwest and did not mind travel and was used to working from home the few days he was not on the road. The company however was dead set against telecommuting, even though the amount of time that would have been involved was minimal. The president of the company just didn’t think people were effective. This intransigence on telecommuting is actually why my wife turned down the offer they had made to her. Subsequently this company lost two great candidates and got stalled on their project, as was indicated by a call my wife received, a few months after she started her current job, asking if she was happy. They had not yet filled their position.

Bad rap

When Yahoo pulled the plug on telecommuting many people saw that as indictment of telecommuting. It was not. It was an admission of the fact that Yahoo had mismanaged their program. Sean Kim, writer of an article that is reprinted in Fast Company, says that companies that are not embracing telecommuting are losing productive time from employees. He quotes a Sanford University study that showed that call center workers assigned to work at home were 13% more productive than their fellow employees assigned to work from an office. Nine percent of that productivity came from working more hours.

Some managers feel that workers working from home are more prone to distractions. Kim, however, quotes a Wall Street Journal article that said that office workers are interrupted generally every 3 minutes and it takes on average 23 minutes to get back to productive work.

How to make it work

The failure of Yahoo’s program was one of mismanagement. There are good practices to help insure good program performance and Kim had several suggestions to make telecommuting work, some of which I included in a 2011 post entitled Managing Virtual Teams.  Here are Kim’s tips:

  1. Think output- When you have someone telecommute the only real effective measure is output or performance. Time is difficult to measure. Results are what you want. The whole ROWE (Results only work environment) movement is based upon this idea. So you have to have a good definition of what output is expected.
  2. Get SMART- You need to have goals that follow the acronym of SMART. Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and have a timeline. You need to have metrics and mechanisms in place that provide specific evidence that goals are being obtained.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate- A critical component of a good telecommuting program is communication. In fact it is the foundation for good HR and management, but that is a different blog post. As a telecommuter myself, one of the things that gets missed is face-to-face communication. You lose the nuance of facial expressions and the hand gestures as well. There has to be some attempt to provide some mechanism to accomplish that type of communication. Kim lists some tools for this.
  4. Create a company bulletin board- In my post of Managing Virtual Teams the manager I discussed, Eric Winegardner of Monster.Com told the story of a contest he had where each worker send in a photo of their home office and then everyone else on the team had to guess whose office was whose. It connected everyone on the team. That is the object of the bulletin board.
  5. Have regular feedback- Virtual meetings are a good way for everyone to connect and a good way to provide feedback. You can do this one-on-one and in group settings. Winegarder told of the value of these meetings in managing his team.

The good and bad

In a day when there is an emphasis on trying to attract and retain the best talent available why would a company want to limit themselves to an employee on the basis of geography? I am involved with a podcast radio program, NakedHRRadio, were our sound editors are located around the world. Telecommuting allowed us to find good talent at a reasonable price. Why wouldn’t everyone want to do that?

The bad part of this is that the US government, in the form of the FLSA, doesn’t allow us to pay a level of worker, non-exempt, based on their productivity. Rather we have to pay them based on their time.

Also let’s face it, not all work can be done in a telecommuting mode. It is just about impossible to get a hamburger from a telecommuter. Maybe someday in the future.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Glanna July 29, 2014 at 1:37 am

Thanks for the tips, Mike! I definitely agree specially with #5, providing regular feedback. This helps the employee to know how important they are to the company. As a result, it encourages them to be more productive, while helping you monitor their performance without being overbearing.

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Jeannie December 9, 2016 at 3:55 am

Ha, Ha! I identified with your post so much! It WAS an expensive dish, I too was going around my grocery store thinking “this is not a beag2r&#8g17;s budget dish!” My Mom used to make me buttered noodles with Parmesan cheese and that is exactly what this reminded me of. Great post and beautiful pictures! Your pasta turned out perfectly.

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