Managing Telecommuters

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 - 20:50

By Leon Gettler

There is no doubt that telecommuting makes for a more productive and challenging workplace. The challenge for managers: how do you manage the invisible? Telecommuters may not naturally know how to interact effectively across space and time. They need strong team skills such as setting goals and sharing responsibility for getting things done. And they need smart managers to make sure they can leverage their skills in a virtual working environment.

Victor Lipman at Forbes points out that the problem with telecommuting is not the telecommuting itself, it’s about management. "There’s nothing inherently wrong with telecommuting. It can be efficient, employee-friendly and environmentally preferable – a constructive morale booster for all. But it has to be managed … Human nature being what it is, if a person is working from home and hardly anyone is ever checking in on him or her, there’s a reasonable chance there will be, shall we say, less rigour in the operation."

Management writer James Surowiecki at The New Yorker says telecommuting is a challenge for managers. "The fundamental point is that much of the value that gets created in a company comes from the ways in which workers teach and learn from each other," Surowiecki says. "If telecommuters do less of that, the organisation will be weaker. On top of this, there’s evidence that telecommuting can make it hard to foster trust and solidarity."

Nonetheless, telecommuting is now the big trend and managers have to develop strategies to deal with it.
Time Magazine says managers need to have certain things in place. First, and most obviously, they have to select the right people for the job. These people have to meet performance standards, including the ability to work independently and productively with a high degree of accountability. Secondly, managers have to formulate a policy around for the expenses the company is willing to reimburse, such as broadband internet and phone service. If there are children at the workplace, they have to make sure that someone is providing care. There needs to be some kind of service for conference calling, screen sharing and video for meetings. There are a number of low-cost and even free options. And they have to make sure that corporate data is protected, particularly on laptops and mobile devices.

Marten Mickos, CEO of cloud software maker Eucalyptus Systems recommends having a "virtual water cooler" with Intranet chat rooms and bulletin boards. "“Telecommuters don’t get that casual water-cooler contact, so it’s important to create it virtually," Mickos says. "When you show your own human side as well, communication rises to a whole new level." He returns the favour by sending an all-hands email about once a month, "just talking about things like what I’m reading these days and why it interests me, or mentioning milestone occasions in my family."

It’s good for recruiting too. "Word gets around," he says. "Establishing this culture has allowed us to recruit great talent, in spite of competition from Google and other huge companies nearby."

Jessica Stillman at Gigaom says managers need to spend a lot of their time communicating with the telecommuters, constantly touching base. “Find the time to speak with your team about those all-important “how” questions: How are we making decisions? How do we give each other feedback? How do we want to deal with conflict and how do we want to bring it up?” She also says they have to know how to deal with conflict (as these things gets swept under the carpet more easily when people are working remotely) and how to deal with cross-cultural differences (a lot of telecommuting teams tend to be made up of people from different cultures). And finally, she says, it’s important to have a virtual open door policy.