Gas prices here in Goleta reached $5.19/gal for premium unleaded yesterday and it got me thinking about how lucky I am to be able to telecommute in my job as a software engineer. Telecommuting is the way of the future for knowledge workers and the barriers to entry are lowered every day, but at the same time it is not something the employee or employer should jump into without forethought. As a Manager or above there are some answers you should get and attributes and traits you should understand before you agree to allow an employee to telecommute. These things may or may not change your final decision but knowing them will give you a much better handle on what to expect from your telecommuting employee.
1. Work Ethic. Does this employee have a track record of performing their assignments? This isn’t about whether they forced something through to make a deadline, it’s about whether day in and day out they came to work and did their job. It’s not about whether they surfed Facebook here or there, it’s about whether they responded to requests, helped out and showed that they were genuinely interested in helping produce your company’s end product. Those character traits will not magically disappear when they work from home, nor will they magically sprout up where they didn’t exist before.
2. Communication Skills. As with work ethic the employee’s ability to interact with teammates and actors external to their group through verbal and written communications is crucial. Good interpersonal skills are almost more important for the telecommuter as they will find themselves physically isolated but constantly on the phone, IM and video chat. These all present challenges as they can lack the direct input of body language, sometimes facial nuances: a good communicator can adapt to that.
3. Relationship with current manager and/or lead. The relationship that a manager (or team lead) has with their direct reports extends to employees that telecommute, but issues can be amplified by the distance and lack of face time. In my company the ability to telecommute was signed off by 3 levels of management: if the same is true at your company then as a senior manager or director you need to consider how well the employee is working with their manager and vice versa.
4. Home Office plan. Ask your potential telecommuter what their home office will look like. For an employee that plans to do this long term you should hear things like “I have a room dedicated” and “I can shut the door when I need to” and “the company VPN works great on my computer” that show how they will have an actual office space with a clear phone line and functioning computer in their home. Depending on your flexibility red flags might include “cel phone from Starbucks”, “RV”, “I’ll just use my home phone”, or “in my toddler’s room so I can watch him”. Cellular service can vary wildly: where I am a land line is 100% necessary. You probably can’t ask about their home life without involving a legal team but it should be safe to ask what their home office will look like.
5. Quality of available internet. For knowledge workers the internet is a LIFELINE. As a software engineer in the Telecom sector the vast majority of my work is done on large back-end servers and expensive test equipment so the best setup for me is to have a live connection (VNC in my case, SGD, Logmein, Citrix are all similar) to my desktop that is physically hosted 2000 miles away. Packet latency is a big deal for me and as such I need the fastest service that I can get in my town (cable internet from Cox). Maybe employees in your company work differently, e.g. checkout software or download database and work locally then upload changes periodically, or email and web-based work only. For that work style maybe a big pipe with lower latency is OK. Ask what happens when it’s foggy and their 4G hotspot won’t let them connect to the office. Ask what happens when they try and do video chat using their Satellite internet during a hailstorm in East Texas. Ask what happens when they need to grab a 10Gb database update. If you don’t understand these things, ask your IT guys to ask the questions.
6. Cost to travel back to the home office. Periodic time back in the office for telecommuters to have real face to face meetings is a good way to keep things on track. If your telecommuter is going to be located more than a short drive away consider how much it will cost to bring them back and how often you expect that to happen. Understanding this ahead of time means you can plan it into the budget cycle.
7. Clear statement of Career Plans. Ask where your employee sees their career in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years. You probably do this anyways in your normal HR reviews but it may have more meaning for the telecommuter. “I want to be a manager in 2 years” at your company my also mean “you’ll have to stop telecommuting at that point”, depending on how your teams are structured. That may not be something they have thought through.
Asking these questions and verifying these traits ahead of time tends to focus everyone involved on what telecommuting really means. As a manager it allows you to make an informed decision about extended the option of telecommuting to your employee.