Enterprise Software

Can telecommuting work?

With gas prices at record highs, telecommuting is being attempted again and again by companies across the country and around the globe. But is it something that small and mid-size enterprises should attempt? Here are some thoughts.

With gas prices at record highs, telecommuting is being attempted again and again by companies across the country and around the globe. But is it something that small and mid-size enterprises should attempt? Here are some thoughts.

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Over the years, I've tried to make telecommuting work at various companies. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but given the average commute of employees and the price of gasoline, I'm looking at it again.

Greg Brendel, VP of sales at V-Soft, an IT recruiting and outsourcing partner said, "We are seeing a rise in companies looking for workers that can work from home." He specifically referred to database administration work being done remotely.

Where I have seen this work is within the call center. With virtualization technologies combined with Voice over IP technologies, it's even easier. I am more familiar with the Cisco and Avaya products, so take this bias into consideration while you read.

Basically, the need these days for a full contact center is limited. With the call manager systems that leverage intelligent call distribution, an employee can work from home. Basically, the call gets routed to the employee's phone and the home computer can access via Virtual Private Network a virtual desktop with all of the screens and tools needed by that employee.

Additionally, the big metrics screens you see in call centers that tell customer service representatives (CSR) how many calls are in the queue, how many have dropped, average wait time and average call duration, can all be pushed to the live virtual desktop of remote CSR's. Some of the major concerns are:

  • Truly knowing that the employee is actually working
  • Performing employee training and evaluation remotely
  • Maintaining a quality product at peak times as well as off-peak
  • Being able to actively participate in meetings

The interesting thing in call centers is that a lot of these concerns have been addressed. Training and evaluation tools such as NICE record interactions between CSRs and customers that can be evaluated by a supervisor. Just In Time (JIT) training can be conducted to address weaknesses in the interactions. Additionally, call centers are largely statistics driven. Remote workers can be paid by number of quality calls handled. Many call centers have reported having a better quality CSR employed. Typically, these are well-educated stay-at-home moms or folks looking for a little extra income.

The challenge still lies with the knowledge worker, and worse, the knowledge worker within an SME.  The demands on IT leaders to be on site to address the hundreds of questions or address the numerous fires at a company require for certain IT job functions to be on site. But if you can eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of break/fix work that needs to be done, IT can work from home.

If we take a page out of the outsourcing handbook, having significant, but appropriate management and monitoring tools, many functions can be performed remotely.  At a previous company, I centralized the IT organization so that support can be done remotely. Additionally, I outsourced much of the break/fix work to our PC provider leveraging the three-year warranties we purchased with each computer. Our resources would have to travel to other locations for new project work, but once we set the technologies up, we made sure that the tools were in place to remotely address issues. Remote access to PC desktops, SNMP tools to diagnose and address networking issues and robust VPN solutions to allow access to critical servers at a remote data center.

One of the keys to allowing developers to work from home is robust project management and business analyst resources. Much like off-shore development, bridging the communication gap and focusing on planning and design are key.

There are ways to quantify the work performed by knowledge workers but they all tend to be big brother-ish. The best approaches are to leverage project management best practices with tight milestones and strict adherence to deadlines and hire knowledge workers with a good work ethic. Collaborative tools like instant messaging and Microsoft SharePoint help better facilitate the office water cooler effect and idea exchange. New video conferencing technology such as Cisco Telepresence is supposed to address the utilization and quality issues seen back in the early 90's. Although these systems may be somewhat cost-prohibitive, the trend looks to be pretty solid thus far. If you haven't seen these Telepresence setups, they are truly creepy with regards to how real the interactions tend to be. After a while you get the distinct impression that the person on the other end of the video conference is actually just across the table from you.

So everything appears to be there from a technology standpoint and from a process management standpoint. The upside benefits are huge. You can hire an excellent work force without having to re-locate employees. You save on travel costs by hosting virtual meetings. You improve your employee quality of life by providing a better work/life balance (i.e., eliminating the commute). It all sounds like it will work. Doesn't it?

In the SME space I see two real challenges with the telecommuting experience. First, telecommuting takes a lot of planning and management to pull off successfully. Time to plan and manage, in my experience, has always been at a premium in SMEs. This may be overcome if the financial motivation is there, but it'll be difficult.

The second and most important reason is building a true team. I just don't see the tools yet to facilitate the development of a highly motivated team. There are so many subjective elements to the team building dynamic that it will be very difficult to capture in some business process tool. There is something to actually knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team and then seeing the dynamics kick in when each member of the team automatically compensates for one team member's weakness while simultaneously bolstering another team member's strength. Can that feeling of "we can do no wrong today" be digitized?

What are your thoughts?

28 comments
Tig2
Tig2

My primary role is one that allows me (requires, even) to work from home. This allows me to make a doctor's appointment at a reasonable hour of the day and still get the time I need to complete tasks. But I have had to learn new habits to make this work. I still get up early. I DO get to sleep in the hour that I used to spend commuting. But I get up and dressed every morning. My home office has a door that closes, I have a land line and cell phone so am reachable, and I don't have young children. Working from home means that a regular appointment can be scheduled for the time of day that traffic is lightest instead of when it is heaviest, thus reducing wear on my vehicle and gas costs. I spend less on clothing as I can wear sweats to the "office". When a family emergency came up, I was able to immediately communicate with my boss and drop everything to take care of it. It is not likely that I would have had that flexibility if I were going into an office every day. Having said all that, I work at a job where I am paid on performance. If I don't turn in a work product, I don't get paid. I think that to some extent, that is key to being successful with telecommuting. I believe that telecommuting is a good thing when it is properly applied. Improperly applied, not so much.

jennie
jennie

Yes, I have been a virtual volunteer for the last 9 months of 2008 and its been great - I usually get my wifi from a coffee shop that provides this service and sit and do my work online all day - and I enjoy this activity / I get all my website work done and other online activities - jennie@getsmartmoodle.org

ChronosManage
ChronosManage

Can anyone share experiences around the costs of insuring the home office of a telecommuter and about ensuring security of company data?

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

Thanks for the comments thus far. They have been very interesting, insightful and helpful. For those of you successfully telecommuting, how do you stay part of the team? What tips, tricks or tech do you use to facilitate team building and team work? Thanks! Jay

TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827

I have telecommuted for 9 years now. The reason it works, I truly treat working at home AS IF I am at work. I get up, shower, watch the news, and at 8:30, I am in my office at work. It is honestly, the mindset. You can't babysit and telecommute effectively, it just won't happen. If you don't have the discipline to work at home, and get distracted (even without little ones around), it isn't for you. Now, whether you are sitting in a cubicle in an office, or at your home, everyone knows who works and who doesn't, the volume, quality and consistency of your work (and level of productivity) tells the tale. I became more productive remotely because I an ignore the phone and do my job at critical junctures, and when actually in the office, there is almost always a line of people who need my help. That distraction is not present telecommuting. Bottom line, try it, and honestly evaluate if you have the discipline to treat working from home as if you really are in the office. TripleII

ArtUllman
ArtUllman

Alot of people would like to telecommute but have reservations about working from home. Many workers would prefer working from a remote office rather than working from home. Remote Office provide infrastructure and structure for people who might otherwise feel isolated working from home. Remote Office Centers are fairly new. They lease individual offices, internet and phone systems to workers from different companies in share centers located around the suburbs. Telecommuting is analogous to excersizing. Some people are able to maintain a consistent exercise program in the home with home equipment. Others can only maintain a routine by going to a gym. It is the same for telecommuters. Workers can find Remote Office Centers by searching the internet for "Remote Office Centers" in quotes or going to a free web site that lists centers: http://www.remoteofficecenters.com

hopetimber
hopetimber

As an independent contractor, I rely on telecommuting. I find that telecommunicating not only works, but actually increases worker efficiency, reduces employer overhead costs, reduces employee commuting time and expenses while saving the Earth! Many technologies are out there to make telecommuting simple. I use Google Docs, GoToMeeting, Tungle calendaring and Vello conferencing service to connect with co-workers and clients. Full disclosure, Vello is one of my clients, but it???s a fabulous service that dials OUT to participants, instead of making everyone dial IN. No more fumbling with passcodes, no more long PIN codes, no more forgetting meetings, and conference calls begin on time. I encourage you to check out vello www.vellocall.com as well as google docs and gotomeeting. Happy telecommuting!

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I have worked in environments where telecommuting took place and have a few observations. Very few environments can handle telecommuting on a large scale. I have heard numerous number crunchers tell me over and over and even lay out the numbers on why it helps. The issue is simple. To make telecommuting work, you have to have a rock solid management plan in place, which really means totally overhauling your business model. I was supporting a lady once that worked from home. I was remoted in to her workstation to help her with something simple that ended taking an hour to do because she had to stop constantly to talk to her three small children. My first thought was ?how much work is this lady getting done?? I know that I have a ten and twelve year old and I have a tough time getting things done at home. I think that to make it work, you also have to change the type of employee that you hire. You have to emphasize hiring staff that works well independently. I spoke to a friend recently that telecommutes once a week and he said that the day he does, he works extra to make sure that there is no doubt he is getting his work done. Employees that need to be watched and ?babysat? will not work in the telecommuting world.

PM III
PM III

No, in the USA at least, there are no special insurance requirements other than what you already have. In the event of loss or damage, your company laptop will receive the same coverage as, say, the possessions of a family friend who is visiting. Yes, data security is extremely important and it's a real concern that centers around the very nature of a laptop...portability. It is a real risk to companies. However, safeguards such as power-on passwords combined with hard-drive passwords (you need BOTH) minimizes the risk. Never leave it in a car, period. It's more secure in a trunk, but can you be sure someone wasn't watching as you loaded it there? So yes, the risk of theft and loss of secure data is greater with a laptop.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Phone/video conferences are great to at least get the team to talk to each other. Another great thing is to get the telecommuters together once a month (or once a quarter) physically (if possible) for a lunch or some sort of get together. Don't forget it is the job of the boss/in house employee to remember the telecommuter and help that person get contacts on the inside.

paul
paul

I worked in Reporting and Analytics for a while and couldnt see the point of driving 45 minutes to sit in an office so I could remote to the Mining company we supported. When asked if I could do this from home the boss said no even though I was clearly bringing in more than 3 times my income in revenue. Now I work in software development with another developer and we both have our Ipods on all day and nobody says a word. Still seems pointless coming in. Next performance review I think I may have to insist on it or find another job.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

Excellent point! I find I have to go to Panera Bread or another coffee shop with Internet access in order to focus on the Blog. Too many distractions at home. Maybe I can move my home gym equipment to these remote office locations and kill two birds with one stone :-)

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

Thanks for the comments. I'll check out some of these technologies and do another post. Anyone else out there using some interesting technologies to facilitate telecommuting?

AV .
AV .

I work with a telecommuter in tech support. I'd say people that do that can't take care of physical problems. Thats a problem because I have to do it for them. When I call their phone, their kids are carrying on in the background. As a co-worker, I think they shouldn't be my responsibility. Its unfair. AV

karenmattox
karenmattox

I telecommuted full time for nine years, two different companies. The first company proposed that I do it when my husband took a new job in a city three hours away and I went in to resign. I was the only telecommuter and their environment was not set up to support it. The entire load fell on my manager, and it was really too much to ask of him (and he was a friend as well). I can handle the workload and the distractions, but the lack of good project management there was impossible to deal with. The second company hired mostly telecommuters, and I was one of several. Although project management was still weak, it worked much more effectively for them, plus I had learned a great deal about the burden on my part to communicate with staff in the office (which I never even visited in three years). That was critical to making things work well. One caveat I would say from experience. Insist on anyone who telecommutes with small children having a babysitter present during their working hours, just as if they had gone to an office, and an office in a room with a door that can be closed if the children are in the house with them. I would say 10-12 years of age is the lower limit on that one. Otherwise they are trying to do two jobs at once, and one (or both) will suffer, and that one is more likely to be the paid job. I loved telecommuting, but eventually it gets old, and it does limit your career if you ever want to go into any type of management role. The first boss told me repeatedly when he was promoted that I could have his (old) job if I would come into the office, but I would have had to move back to do it, not an option for this two-career couple.

Aydin H
Aydin H

I have just start negotiating with my current company that I'm working for almost 4 years with them as an Information Systems Manager. They believe that physical attendance is a must for employee. So we have almost reach to 2-3 days office work and rest working remote from home. I am excited about new experience

PM III
PM III

A few responses got close to the real issue, but it comes down to this: No matter where you work (office/home/train/or...) how effectively is management measuring productivity? Assuming phone and internet connectivity is there and in constant working order, the only criteria management should be truly concerned about is whether or not you are getting your work done. If someone works in a "traditional company" (or, LOL, government) where management thinks you are working just because you are physically there sitting at a desk, they don't have a handle on measuring productivity. Whether or not you work remotely, that is extremely unfair to you, the employee, and damaging to the organization as a whole. I have previously worked remotely for 12 years in two companies. I am a PM and have managed global projects. What difference does it make what phone I pick up to run a conference call? If I have people on from every continent in the world (yes, I have done exactly that on a weekly basis) would you expect it instead to be a face to face meeting? Of course not! So what it comes down to is that first and foremost, telecommuting or not, management needs to define what productivity is expected and meet with the employee so that the criteria is completely understood. Once you've accomplished that, the whole issue of telecommuting is much less a thing to be feared.

TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827

My immediate boss did the same, said "No, absolutely not". My boss's boss told him I could. I would have left the company if I couldn't telecommute because I hated the city. I set up a meeting to find his concerns. It came down to 2 things. 1) How do I know you are actually working? 2) What if I have to get in touch with you? I asked him how he knew if people where working when at work? It comes down to job performance whether you are sitting in front of a computer at home or in a cubicle. The second, wireless phones. Would he have gone along with it if not for my boss's boss, I don't know, but 6 months into it, there simply was no problem anymore. I was always accessible (during business hours) and my productivity was the same/went up a little. I was the pilot, now telecommute is allowed for almost everyone. Some still come to the office because they simply can't do it, and want to be part of the group. You may want to explore why he gives a blanket no. TripleII

mckinnej
mckinnej

Interesting you should mention leaving your current job due to the telecommuting issue. In a recent managers' meeting the HR folks briefed us that a lack of telecommuting and/or flexible work hours were the #1 reason given on exit interviews for leaving our company. They're revamping the policy to fix this (we hope). One of my duties is management of an enterprise help desk for a client. Due to the way our help desk is implemented, our technicians can work from anywhere. Only three things are required, a telephone, an Internet connection, and a computer of course. The call system shows when people are signed in to take calls and we user IM to communicate. However, even with this configuration the majority of the team works in the client's office. Why? Because there is just no substitute for face-to-face communications. Also, as someone has already mentioned, it really depends on the employee. I've got some folks that just can't work at home. The spouse and kids would kill their productivity. On the other hand, I often work from home just to get things done. There are no distractions in my house, so I'm more likely to meet a deadline if I can isolate myself and hammer it out. Those cases are the exceptions though. I'm normally in the office. In a nutshell, I'd have to say it takes a serious look at each individual to determine if telecommuting is a viable solution. It helps a lot if the job is structured to support remote workers, but it certainly doesn't guarantee success.

aathey
aathey

I took my first stab at telecommuting about a year ago, and since then I've negotiated working two days a week from home and three days in the office. I've made it clear that I can come in on the other days as needed, but so far I've consistently been able to hold to that schedule. My first few times were marred by the ease of distractions around my house, so I worked out the following system: 1) As suggested by a previous poster, hold yourself to the same morning routine to get into "work mode". I'll even run to a coffee shop or the like and come straight home to simulate driving to the office. 2) Though I don't have a dedicated home office, I made space in a large room where I leave a desk, second monitor, and peripherals always ready to go. I arranged the space so that all I have to look at is a blank wall--makes it far easier to stay focused. 3) I consider my privilege to telecommute subject to continued performance, and I make sure that every day I'm remote I get at least one quantifiable item done and communicate in a way to show that I did it (ie, send a status update e-mail and/or ask some questions on a project showing progress). Between those methods, I've turned my remote days into generally more productive times as I'm able to concentrate better without the tap on the shoulder style interruptions.

ken_dyer
ken_dyer

LOL, ....yeah, so anyway, one of the better points of telecommuting at home is to GET AWAY FROM THE UNNECESSARY DISTRACTIONS IN THE OFFICE. I can add those up at a traditional setting quite a bit more, than in my own chosen space. I think we'll be dragging the CFO's in by their ankles, but they have to take there heads out of the sand eventualy.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

I have been deskside, team lead, etc.. There have been many time I was able to do my job off-site or at home. However, it is not something that can be done everyday. It all depends on what is needed, but if in a support role that would require, at least sometimes, to be on-site, then they should live close enough to the office to get there and be willing to show up when needed.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

A good manager knows how to set expectations and explain what is needed from their workers on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

clauder357
clauder357

I am told by my boss I am one of the most productive Problem Manager in the company. I work for one of the 3 biggest Outsourcing companies in Canada. It would not be the case if I had to spend 3 hours daily in subways and inter-city buses. As a Problem Manager, I have to rely on a QUIET environment, which is impossible to obtain at my desk downtown. There is nothing more disturbing than hearing chit-chat or loud business talk while conducting a teleconference on very complex IT problems, or writing reports to translate "TechnoLingo" into "Tie-talk" Exec summaries. So, to me telework (full time in my case, except when my physical presence is necessary, which is seldom the case) provides 2 advantages: I can concentrate better, and when I have to, I can convert the time I save avoiding transport into productive work without getting home at 21:00 or 22:00. Another bonus: much greener Job :-)

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Now, the company I work for now gets it, but I've worked for too many that don't understand that working in the office doesn't mean I'll be productive. As a matter of fact, just the other day, I didn't get a thing done. It was a day of interruptions and little things cropping up. Not a huge thing, but if I'd been at home, I'd have actually finished some work With that being said, telecommuting isn't for the faint of heart. You really have to be ready to be at work more than 8-5 M-F. It's just kinda part of the environment.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

can be hard to pull off. However, it is not always impossible. I would add, it also depends largely on what kind of support is needed. However, in this case, I would have to agree with you, it aint fair! I like showing up at the office often, but, I would like to work at home 1-2 days a week as well. Although 2 days would be a hardship in many cases, and I never know when I may need to be on-site. Good thing I only live 4.5 miles away though :D and I rarely work from home. When working from home, I try not to take advantage of the situation, I try to keep it like I am in the office as much as possible.

AV .
AV .

Technical support from a distance is tough to pull off. In my case, my co-worker lives 50 miles away. His family responsibilities prevent him from picking up and coming into the office. The other thing I've experienced is that users don't want to be bothered waiting for him to respond to their emails to get their problem fixed so they come to me instead. When he telecommutes, I have to work twice as hard on site and also assist him with things he can't do from home so he can accomplish something. I can't tell you how many times I have been left in a lurch when he decides to work from home without notice. The telecommuting option is also not extended to me. I'm expected to be on site. Not fair. AV

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