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IT workers to management: NOW can we telecommute?

By Howard Baldwin
February 14, 2013 06:00 AM ET

"We were crowded," Campbell reports. "With the confluence in interest in working remotely, improvements in unified communications technology and the reality of our physical space constraints, we set up hoteling facilities in our headquarters with whiteboards and beanbags."

"It's had a tremendous impact on our real estate requirements in IT, and we've gained significant savings." Campbell doesn't have a figure solely for IT, but companywide, he estimates $30 million in real estate savings overall.

Other times, a remote workforce is the only workforce a company can attract. Annis knows this situation all too well from his experience as senior vice president of IT at his previous employer, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Universal Technical Institute (UTI). It used Progress Software for application development, but developers were not easy to find. "We couldn't convince enough of those developers to move to Phoenix," he says. "If we had an open position, and the applicant was in Tampa, it didn't matter."

Eventually, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the developers, project managers and quality assurance staff were remote. UTI flew its remote Progress developers into Phoenix every six to eight weeks in order to foster relationships, which kept everyone connected and collaborative.

Experts give that strategy high marks. Organizationally, it's important to schedule regular confabs for remote employees, they say -- everything from quarterly in-person meetings to a regularly scheduled weekly check-in call between employee and supervisor. Sometimes, as with agile scrums among developers, a daily call works best to assess progress.

All those strategies help reduce the danger of invisibility to remote employees, RHT's Reed says. "If you work remotely all the time, you miss the opportunity to engage, to build camaraderie, to take part in face-to-face meetings. There's a danger to being out of sight and out of mind. You may still have to make yourself available, and make time to be in the office."

How to launch a telework program

Stew Levy, senior consultant for Telework Program Solutions, a Burke, Va.-based consulting firm, recommends a "crawl, walk, run" strategy for telecommuting programs.

In the crawl phase, define policies and guidelines. In the walk phase, deploy a pilot project so that both employees and supervisors get a sense of what telecommuting will look like.

"Then conduct some focus sessions to find out what worked and what didn't," says Levy. "Find out what the supervisors want to see differently and what the employees want to see changed."

In the run phase, you launch the program, usually with telecommuting allowed one or two days a week.

You should also establish guidelines around communication and responsiveness -- do you expect telecommuters to be on an instant messaging system and respond within five minutes? Should they respond to an email within one hour? What's the escalation path from IM to email to texting to calling?

Nancy Crouch, deputy CIO at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., seconds the need for both training and performance management tools. "We've invested heavily in career development, professional development and performance management. We know who needs to work face to face versus who can come back from working at home with three times the usual amount of work completed."

Companies also need to set policies around hardware, software and connectivity. Are you going to supply corporate laptops that get carried back and forth, or install virtualization software on home computers (and if it's the latter, is it the employee's machine or the corporation's)? Will you subsidize connectivity costs like telephone or Internet? Whatever the policy, it should be determined beforehand and communicated frequently.

Whatever guidelines you set up, take advantage of the technology available, whether it's unified communications systems that show employees' availability or shared calendars. "When people are working at home, you need multimodal communication, including something visual like WebEx or whiteboarding," says Jetly, who plans to invest in videoconferencing this year.

Finally, think about your network infrastructure, especially if you anticipate telecommuting to spike, such as when a majority of employees are home during a snowstorm. Consultant Gordon says, "If 10% traditionally log in, how robust is your infrastructure when Hurricane Sandy forces 50% to log in?"

Physical considerations aside, the most important element "making it work" comes down to management. "You need to define the success metric," says Jetly. "If you're not clear in your own mind what people are accountable for, and the team doesn't understand how they're measured, telecommuting will give you heartburn."

Frequent contributor Baldwin, a Silicon Valley freelancer, is perpetually remote.

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