By Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection
In our increasingly diverse world, people work best in different ways, and many employees want to work from someplace other than the office, at least some of the time.
There are payoffs for doing so, both for the employee and for the organization. For example, allowing employees to work from home may actually save money for the company.
And as more people request the option to work from home in order to more easily handle all aspects of their lives, more and more employers realize that some people can work as well, and often better, away from the office for part of the week.
If you're new to managing remote workers, here are some tips that will help you make sure that the arrangement works smoothly.
What to look for in a teleworker
Not everyone is a good candidate for remote work. Some thrive on the constant hum of office activity and the ability to meet colleagues at the water cooler occasionally. Some have not proven their ability to produce results independently, either with your organization or with past employers.
Here are 12 qualities to look for in a potential telecommuter:
- Enjoys working alone.
- Has earned the trust of his or her manager.
- Is trustworthy (keeps his or her word).
- Is self-disciplined.
- Is independent. Has shown ability to make good decisions on his or her own.
- Keeps manager and colleagues informed about his or her work.
- Is able to complete tasks within scheduled times.
- Has good communication skills, both oral and written.
- Is comfortable using computers and understands most new technology.
- Doesn't need frequent recognition to feel good about his or her work.
- Has a safe, accessible, and appropriate place at home in which to work.
- Has dependent care needs arranged for during work hours.
What kinds of jobs are suitable for telecommuting?
Think of a job as a collection of tasks. Some must be done at the office, and some can be done from home or from another location. Some may be reassigned to someone else in the office in exchange for tasks that are easily done off-site.
Supervisors everywhere are finding that it's possible to reorganize job tasks to make telecommuting an option. (Although telecommuting is an individual arrangement, be sure to involve coworkers and support staff when restructuring the work.)
The amount of telecommuting that an employee may do depends on how many appropriate tasks they have each week and whether the equipment required to accomplish those tasks is available.
Jobs that are most suitable include …
- Jobs that involve thinking, planning, reading, or writing.
- Data analysis and other analysis work, such as investigations, program analysis, and financial analysis.
- Telephone-intensive tasks like marketing or customer service.
- Computer-oriented tasks, such as e-mail, word processing, data entry, Web page design, programming, and engineering.
- Payroll transaction processing.
As you can see, positions that are most suitable include engineering, architecture, and research.
Jobs that are least suitable include …
- Jobs that require interaction with people or objects.
- Government jobs that deal with classified material.
Positions that are least suitable may include those such as retailer and production-line worker.
The work-from-home proposal
The best way to begin this process is by asking your potential telecommuter to think about the arrangement as a pilot program, of perhaps 90 days in duration, that you both have every intention of making a regular, permanent arrangement.
Beginning with a pilot program means that you …
- Set goals for the arrangement.
- Determine how you'll know success when you see it.
- Measure and evaluate the results.
- Make any necessary changes or end the arrangement.
Ask the prospective telecommuter to complete a proposal. It will help both of you be clear about the details and understand what has yet to be worked out. If your organization doesn't already have a proposal form, here's what should be included in one:
- Duration of the pilot program
- Work schedule
- Task allocation (what will be done when and where)
- Benefits to the organization
- Business goals and objectives
- Anticipated changes that might have repercussions for coworkers
- Communications plan
- Support needed from the office
- Description of home office
- Equipment required
- Estimated costs
- Evaluation plan
When your employee has completed the proposal, meet to walk through it together and clarify all points.
When you're sure that you understand the proposal …
- Evaluate whether the job's results and outcomes can be measured adequately.
- Determine whether any tasks in the job call for continual or unpredictable face-to-face contact with customers, colleagues, or management.
- Consider whether it's possible to redesign or reassign any tasks to make the job appropriate for telecommuting.
- Meet with appropriate coworkers, including support staff, to discuss how the proposal will affect their work.
Before saying yes
Whether or not the employee has completed a proposal, here's what you should have in your hands from each prospective teleworker before making a decision on the arrangement:
- A written description of the project
Make sure that your would-be teleworker has included all the pertinent facts about the project. Check for these facts by asking four of journalism's stock interrogatives — who, what, when, and where.
- Clearly written, measurable goals, and ways of measuring their achievement
Create an evaluation timeline that includes specific dates on which progress will be measured. Both you and your prospective telecommuter should be crystal clear about what a job well done will look like, and you should both agree on deliverables — work products, events, and accomplishments — before he or she begins working remotely. If the work doesn't lend itself to a units-per-hour measure, you'll need a broader approach to defining expected results.
You should also evaluate whether coworkers are getting what they want from the employee in a timely manner. Are team members able to contact the employee when they need to, communicate as often as they need, and collaborate when it's important to do so? And, finally, does the employee feel successful? In other words, has the flexible work arrangement made his or her life less stressful?
- Clearly defined methods of communicating
Make sure that both formal and informal lines of communication are open and that everyone knows how they will contact each other, particularly if team members are working different hours.
- A plan for what will happen if the arrangement succeeds, and if it fails
If goals are achieved, will the program continue as is? Will others have an opportunity to try additional pilot programs? Will this project be replicated throughout the department?
What would constitute failure and grounds for terminating the project? If the goals are not met and a telecommuting arrangement fails, will the teleworker give up on the concept? Will you? Or will you both investigate the failure and try again?
Making it work for your employees — and for your company
Be clear about exactly what you expect. Concentrate on the end product, not the process. Manage the results, not the activity. Understand and practice the difference between close supervision and good supervision, and keep asking — and answering — the question, How will we know when the job is done satisfactorily?
It may seem that managing telecommuters is a lot of extra work, taking time that you don't have to spare. In truth, it may take a little extra time at first, but you'll find that the results that your telecommuters produce will make that time well spent.
And take it from those who've experienced managing this arrangement: These more results-oriented methods may help your nontelecommuting employees produce their best work, too.
About the author Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection, is one of the nation's leading pioneers in the field of work/life balance. A founding board member of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, she has been helping companies, organizations, and governments transform their culture since 1984. She writes the publications Work and Family Newsbrief, the Trend Report, and the Manager's Quarterly, and has written several special reports and publications. Susan most recently published The Eleven Essential Steps to Designing a Successful Work-Life Program.