There are plenty of cheerleaders for
telecommuting workers. Gurus herald it as the way to redress the modern
work/life imbalance. Senior management see it as a way of meeting the demands
of 24×7 customers and markets. IT vendors love it as a way of selling new
technologies. But what do home workers and their managers think of the new
online ways of working? Banks may not have thought through the
full implications of equipping staff with mobile technology or allowing them to
log in from home.

The drawbacks for telecommuters

example, research from the Economist Intelligence Unit and IBM has found
that nearly half of mobile workers feel they lack access to what might be
called corporate social capital, that is “coffee
machine conversations” and the informal networks at the office. In other
words, it may just not suit some.

informal collaboration is vital to get ahead and to form relationships with
colleagues,” explains Eric Lesser, IBM Human Capital Management Leader.
“In addition, workers can feel alienated and underappreciated when working
away from the office because of a lack of appropriate managerial support,
technologies, skills, and performance measurements necessary to work
effectively and productively.”

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The problems compound for those telecommuters lacking
confidence. They feel they have to be more available than they would be in the
office, resulting in “e-mail addiction”, the compulsive checking of
messages in the evenings and on weekends. Other telecommuters feel that they
work harder than their in-office counterparts.

Nationwide’s telecommuting challenge

These were questions that confronted
Nationwide, the UK’s
largest mutual building society (a financial services firm). Home and mobile
working was adopted as an important way of extending staff work patterns.
However, internal surveys showed that it was not an automatic panacea.

The surveys showed that
some managers were too controlling of people working at home by monitoring
connection periods to corporate systems. Conversely, home workers felt that
they had to be seen to be viewed as productive and therefore sent e-mails at
times outside the conventional nine-to-five working day. Technologies such as
the Blackberry compounded the problem: its any time, any place, anywhere
facility put remote team members under considerable pressure.

Adopt strong policies and business processes to manage
telecommuting workers

Nationwide’s response was
to develop its own unique policies and procedures for dealing with home workers.
Staff can request to work from home, but they must be assessed in terms of
their suitability and the appropriateness of the role itself. Nationwide’s
process includes identifying personal and business benefits, the management of
relationships with the rest of the team, and how the manager will monitor their
work. There is also a special contract for employees working from home, which
includes policies for issues such as the move back into the office should a job
change demand it.

If your business is
thinking about allowing employees to telecommute, there are a range of issues to
consider, such as data protection and risk, health and safety (working
environment and equipment), security, and dealing with confidential waste. This
is not just a question of policy, but of investment too. For instance,
Nationwide has developed health and safety assessments for home workers and
ensures that the right equipment is provided for them, as well as the proper
working environment.

matter does not stop there. Several additional management skills were
identified as being important. Managers are now trained to deal with staff
routinely away from the office. They learn how to exhibit greater flexibility,
tolerance, and open-mindedness about working patterns. Managers must realize
that flexible working means being able to trust the worker to complete tasks at
a time that suits them—as long as there are adequate measures to assess their

in all, although Nationwide has embraced the idea of flexible working to meet
the needs of its customers, the expectations of its employees, and the demands
of the business, it has also had to put in place clear processes by which home
workers can be assessed. Clear guidelines that address both the business and
soft issues faced by telecommuters will go a long way toward making at-home
workers productive and safeguarding the company’s success.