Lessons I Learned from Employees About Telecommuting
Last week, technology giant IBM made news when it announced that it was “quietly dismantling” its historically successful telecommuting program. In this article in The Mercury News, writer Rex Crum reports that the company is hoping to build a more collaborative community by ending their long-standing commitment to remote working. The move appears to be an attempt to right a sinking ship, as the organization has experienced steady losses over the past few years.
Unfortunately, the move is likely to have two significant negative impacts. First, current employees who telecommute must choose between their lifestyles and their jobs. This will undoubtedly have a negative impact on morale throughout the company.
Second, eliminating telecommuting will have a negative impact on their ability to recruit some new employees. Millennials, in particular, consider a daily commute an unnecessary expense in both time and money. As I noted in one of my first blog posts, Game Changing Macro-Trends, many people value their flexibility so much that they prefer an independent contractor relationship to one that requires a commute.
Technology is Important, but It Isn’t Everything
My company, MarketFitz, Inc., has long been committed to telecommuting. Before telecommuting was popular, we were investing in somewhat klugey technology that would allow our small company’s employees to work from wherever the wished to be. In 1998, that meant a dial-up VPN and manually routing calls to our main line to the home offices or cell phones of team members. Technology has evolved to match our needs. Our phones now run on a VOIP system that provide us with four-digit dialing between offices. We share systems with ease across distances. Instant messaging allows quick conversations on the fly. Telecommuting is easy these days.
So why isn’t it working for IBM? It might be because technology isn’t everything.
Over the past 19 years, I’ve learned a lot about managing a remote team. Here are 5 things, in addition to investing in technology, that a company needs to do in order to ensure success with remote employees.
Hire People Who Will Succeed When Telecommuting
Every once in a while, someone will tell me that they can’t imagine how I get anything done working out of a home office. Am I not distracted by family activities, or tempted to watch day-time television and snack on bon-bons?
No, I’m not. But this lifestyle definitely isn’t for everyone!
Most employees fall into two general categories relative to work: people who can’t pick it up, and people who can’t put it down. The former includes people who would fall prey to distractions at home. Work simply isn’t their highest priority, or they don’t have the discipline to prioritize it without structure. There is nothing wrong with these people as employees. However, they generally don’t succeed as telecommuters.
The latter are people who are committed to their work. It is a high priority for them, and they feel a great sense of commitment to the company and their team. These employees have no problem telecommuting. They will make sure they get the work done, reaching out for help or collaboration when it will improve the work product. These are the individuals to hire for remote work positions.
Hold Telecommuting Employees Accountable for Outcomes
When I first launched MarketFitz, one of the questions I was asked most frequently was how I knew employees were working. The answer is easy: they produce results.
From the very beginning, my focus has always been on outcomes. The time required to do the job is less relevant. To move this to a nonprofit context, consider a major gifts officer. His or her job is to develop relationships and generate contributions. If one officer is sufficiently efficient to do what his or her peers do in significantly less time, and the outcomes match my expectations, the hours they invest are not relevant.
Working with a remote team takes a greater focus on communication than it would if the team were all in one place. While a manager can summon all in-house employees for an impromptu meeting to communicate information, keeping remote teams informed is harder, particularly if team members enjoy flexibility in their work hours.
Everyone is overwhelmed with communications these days. I spent the better part of my weekend cleaning out 1,000 emails that had accumulated before, during and after a recent vacation. Add to those the publications I read, the phone calls and text messages I receive, and the mail that still shows up in my inbox on a routine basis, and I often feel overwhelmed.
When employees work from home, communications from their employer can get lost in the shuffle. To be effective, employers with telecommuting employees need to use the same strategies required for effective external communications: use a variety of communications channels, repeat the message, and say it in different ways. We used a weekly conference call with all employees to deliver important information. I also reserved certain communications vehicles, such as the mass-distributed voicemail message, for particularly important information.
Invest in Space
There is no doubt that our virtual office environment saved MarketFitz a great deal of money on rent. However, we found that having some space available to us was still important. In-person meetings still needed to happen. In some cases, a meeting at Starbucks or our client’s office was perfectly appropriate. However, some conversations simply require privacy.
We tried a variety of approaches, from using shared space, to using the facilities at a private club, to renting space of our own. Each approach had advantages and disadvantages. However, without some easy access to space for private meetings, our remote workforce would have struggled to meet our clients’, and our company’s, needs.
Even the most independent employee sometimes feels isolated. I will never forget the conversation I had with one particularly valuable employee when she resigned. She loved the flexibility of our work environment, and she enjoyed the work, but she felt isolated. I missed it.
She wasn’t first to feel this way. I found out early on that it takes consistent effort to build community when your team is distributed across a broad geography. When she resigned, I realized I had become less consistent in my community-building investments.
To retain telecommuters, its critical to have a variety of events that give them an opportunity to build a community within the company. Business meetings and retreats provide some opportunity on a periodic basis. However, it’s important to have social interactions and fun together as a team as well.
Yes, this will cost your organization some money. And if you don’t frame it correctly, some people might see these activities as some sort of boondoggle. I can assure you that they are not.
I believe this is the most critical piece to encourage collaboration. Personal relationships and mutual trust are important in collaborative environments. Perhaps this was the missing element from IBM’s mixture.
Telecommuting is a Trend that Won’t Fade
Time will tell whether IBM suffers as a result of this decision or benefits from increased collaboration when it moves telecommuters back into physical space. However, I believe that we will continue to see increased employee demand for workplace flexibility, including the ability to work remotely. There are challenges, from technology to security to human resource considerations, but the benefits are significant.
Got a Tip to Share?
Does your organization offer remote working options, either on a full-time or part-time basis? If so, what pros and cons have you experienced? What makes telecommuting successful? Please leave a comment and share your insights.
Heather Fitzpatrick is the President & CEO of MarketFitz, Inc., a company focused on helping nonprofit and for-profit organizations achieve their goals in the market. She is also the author of this blog, Upturn Strategies, which focuses on planning strategies for nonprofits. If you would like to subscribe to this blog, please click here. Heather will send you a monthly summary of all the articles she publishes. Thank you for reading Upturn Strategies!