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How to manage telecommuters

Network World Fusion

June 19, 2000
Web posted at: 11:03 a.m. EDT (1503 GMT)

(IDG) -- Telecommuting is growing in popularity. Hiring telecommuters has many advantages and managing telecommuters is easier than you might think.

Employers find that telecommuting increases productivity and improves attendance. Work can be more efficient without office politics and schmoozing, and time missed due to colds or transportation and family problems. In addition, employing telecommuters reduces overhead and occupancy costs, which allows companies to grow without expanding office space. It helps recruit and retain good employees without having to rely on location as a factor. That means improved quality of work and lower human resource demands for retraining and replacing personnel. What's more, there are potential tax incentives for employers, as governments are taking a more active role in promoting the social and environmental benefits of telecommuting. Overall, studies show that companies can save thousands of dollars a year per telecommuter.

Tom Reynolds, founder and president of iLan Systems and author of Cyberlane Commuter, started managing telecommuters in 1993. "I get more work out of my telecommuting employees by far, and there's very little turnover," he says. "The whole environment is one of responsibility and trust. That and a performance-oriented environment, plus the extra hours, causes the productivity." Reynolds estimates that 20 percent of onsite employees' time is lost due to factors over which they have no control.

Catherine Roseberry, who wrote a telecommuting guide, says the costs involved with starting a telecommuting program weighed against the alternatives can make telecommuting a sound business choice."

What does it take to manage telecommuters?

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A plan

Construct a team charter and set long-term and short-term goals. Since telecommuters often need to make independent decisions, it is particularly important that they understand the goals of the company, the objectives of their group within the company, and their own role in achieving those goals.

A written agreement

Many employers remain suspicious of telecommuting because they are fearful of reduced worker accountability and its effects on productivity. A written agreement between the telecommuter and the employer can help alleviate those fears.

All aspects of a job should be spelled out in a written agreement. The agreement should serve to make sure your people understand the company's goals, priorities, and objectives. It will cover ownership of remote equipment, compensation for worker-provided equipment, and compensation for worker expenses (e.g., additional telephone lines, long-distance charges).

You'll want to set out your criteria for workers' performance evaluations and frequency of required office attendance (for meetings, customer/client contacts, or just to stay in touch). Legal considerations such as licensing of software, company security issues, and grounds for termination of the agreement should be covered as well. A plan for compensation in case of injury on the job should be included, as should a dependent care plan.

Equal pay for equal work

Employers and telecommuters contacted for this column say that employers are paying telecommuters the same as onsite employees doing the same work. If you want to keep your telecommuters, you'll probably have to do the same.

Control over incoming calls

Tom Reynolds recommends that companies make provisions so employees aren't receiving calls directly on their home lines. "Get yourself set up so that incoming calls go to the central office and get fanned out from there," he says. That way, if a telecommuter quits or is fired, you can easily reroute calls to his or her replacement.

A forum

A bulletin board for telecommuters on the company intranet provides easy access to information that employees need to do their jobs. It also allows them to communicate efficiently with managers and coworkers.

Reliable high-speed connections

Make sure your telecommuters have reliable hardware and a fast, reliable ISP. Find out if DSL is available in your area. Phone companies can offer that high-speed Internet access over regular phone lines, though you'll need a special high-speed modem. Enabling telecommuters to get their work done quickly and easily will make your job easier.

Network navigation tools

Make sure that telecommuters have access to network navigation tools such as search engines, site maps, and written instructions on where to find files or other resources. Such tools make it possible for telecommuters to find their way around the network independently and on their own schedules.

Personal communication

In addition to making information available, it's also important to make yourself available. Personal contact is as important with telecommuters as with onsite employees. Open lines of communication help you identify and discuss problem areas as soon as possible and develop a plan of action to avoid bigger problems down the road.

Continuity and structure

Have regularly scheduled short meetings to catch up on work progress and discuss any problem areas with your telecommuters. Regularly scheduled meetings help in setting short-term goals and brief meetings are usually more efficient than long ones.

The right people

Select telecommuters carefully. Ideally, telecommuters should be proven employees. Choose self-starters who work well independently and get work done on time.

Results-based management

Managers need to move from procedure-based to results-based management, says Roseberry.

Tom Reynolds concurs: "If you're not willing to let your employees telecommute, you haven't done your job as a manager because you can't adequately judge your employees' performance: you've lost the focus of the performance."

Training and consulting

Managers may need to learn how to manage virtually. "Not having each and every employee visible is a big adjustment for supervisors and managers," says Roseberry. "Many employers and managers aren't aware of the technological and organizational innovations that make telecommuting possible and practical for their companies." Some of the Websites listed below offer training programs and consulting services for managers.

In sum, managing telecommuters is not unlike managing employees onsite. It requires management skills such as goal setting, assessing progress, giving regular feedback, and managing based on outcomes. Plan carefully, communicate often, pick the right people, give them the right tools, and get help if you need it, and you will succeed as a manager of telecommuters.

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Ten tips for keeping employees
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The end of job loyalty?
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Boomerang employees
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IT career resources

University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center's Telecommuting Guide
ADOA Telecommuting Program
Telecommuting Today!

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