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What to do when your telecommuting program isn't working

It's supposed to save office space and reduce worker turnover. But telecommuting isn't the answer for everyone. In fact, telecommuting arrangements fail more often than you think. Find out how to keep your program on track.


After six months of allowing some employees to telecommute, half of them are doing well, and others, well, they just don’t seem to be adapting. No matter how well you plan your telecommuting program, it’s likely that for some employees, telecommuting simply won’t work. For this article, we spoke with four experts who recommended ways to end the remote working arrangement in cases where telecommuting doesn’t get the job done.

The transition back to the office
Through 2004, it’s estimated that about 20 percent of employees who volunteer for telecommuting will want to re-enter a typical office environment within six months of beginning participation in the program, according to Stamford, CT-based business technology advisor Gartner.

John Girard, vice president and research director at Gartner, recommends that all work-from-home programs include clearly defined exit clauses. These clauses should allow either the telecommuter or the telecommuter’s manager to request that the worker return to the traditional office space. Girard said ending a telecommuting program for a particular employee should not affect that worker’s career, regardless of the reason why the telecommuter came back to the office. Girard provided these recommendations during the Gartner conference "Remote Access: Building and Managing the Workplace of the Future."

He predicted that, despite the risk of failure, more than 137 million workers worldwide will be involved in some form of remote work by 2003.

Why telecommuting fails
The reasons that a telecommuting schedule fails are just as varied as the people who participate in telecommuting. Bob Fortier, president of InnoVisions Canada, wrote part of the online curriculum for ITAC’s Telework America, and discussed what leads to the breakdown of a telework arrangement.

“Sometimes telework ceases to make sense in a particular environment,” Fortier said. “Perhaps a new project requires intense on-site participation. Or there is a decline in the quality or quantity of an employee's work. Or it could be because the telework arrangement had a negative impact on others in the work unit.”

Fortier said if the failure is due to a performance problem, treat it as you would any performance issue, taking immediate action, perhaps even canceling the program for that particular worker. That should, however, be a last straw situation.

“Wherever possible, you should give the teleworker an opportunity to correct the problem,” Fortier said, “while advising that the arrangement will be terminated if there is no improvement or change.”

If the problem is due to an operational obstacle, Fortier advises trying to work out a pragmatic and feasible solution.

“In any case, your program should clearly spell out that telework can be terminated for operational or performance problems.”

Ask workers to demonstrate their commitment
Teleworkers can shore up their end of the deal by regularly performing self-evaluations. Christina Heilig, of Austin, Texas-based T Manage Inc., said telecommuters need to honestly evaluate how the change in working environments has affected their productivity. Heilig offered other questions that teleworkers should ask themselves:
  • Am I calling my supervisor with questions, or simply guessing what is expected?
  • Am I managing my time well, or are distractions too much of a challenge to overcome?
  • Am I answering phone calls or responding to e-mail in a timely manner?

Mangers should remember the qualities that made the teleworker a good candidate to begin with and examine whether those qualities still exist. In addition, managers who supervise telecommuters should evaluate their administration of the telecommuting arrangement by answering these questions:
  • Am I regularly checking in with teleworkers by phone or e-mail?
  • Am I monitoring the worker’s performance, or do I constantly doubt that the teleworker is really working?
  • Am I providing timely and constructive feedback?
  • Am I keeping a positive attitude towards teleworking?

Steps to increase your chances for success
Your instincts may tell you that you need to select the right employees for telecommuting to increase the chances of success. But Paul C. Boyd, a management consultant with Telecommuting & Telework Strategies in Norfolk, MA, recommended a different approach. He believes that you will increase the success rate of your telecommuting program if you don’t offer telecommuting as a reward for certain individuals. Instead he recommended that telecommuting should be deemed appropriate for an entire job class. Boyd outlined several strategies to help keep a telecommuting plan on track:
  1. Require telecommuters to participate in meetings at the office.
  2. Focus your concern on the telecommuter’s job performance and don’t be concerned with checking up on the location of the telecommuter.
  3. Financially support the program with appropriate equipment, such as phone lines.
  4. After a sufficient adjustment period, monitor whether performance drops.
You love to avoid traffic snarls and bad office coffee, but what’s the best way to ensure that your telecommuting schedule will continue? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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