Get tough on telecommuting: 6 questions to ask before you say yes

Proceed cautiously -- telework can change office dynamics in ways you hadn't anticipated

Telecommuting is back on workers' radars in a big way these days, thanks to gas prices that are a whopping 30% higher this summer than last.

Wannabe telecommuters are lining up outside their bosses' offices with work-from-home plans in hand, and many of them could get their wish this time around: According to WorldatWork, an association of human resource professionals, 40% more employers are offering telework programs this year than last.

Should your IT employees be part of that burgeoning crowd?

It's certainly tempting to say yes. Increasing fuel costs and heightened corporate environmental consciousness are magnifying many of the benefits of telework, including conserving fuel (and money), reducing traffic congestion (and CO² emissions), and reducing space and energy use at the employer's facility. Employers also often find they're better able to attract and retain talented employees with the flexibility and increased job satisfaction that telework programs offer.

All of that is driving "a huge amount of inquiries" from organizations looking to deploy more systematic, companywide telework programs, says Josh Holbrook, director of enterprise research at Yankee Group Research Inc.

That said, IT and telework don't have an unblemished record of success. In 2006, Hewlett-Packard Co. ended teleworking arrangements for hundreds of its IT workers. And early this year, Intel Corp. began requiring more than half the teleworkers in its IT group to report to the office at least four days a week. In both instances, the companies indicated that teleworking had had a negative impact on IT employees' productivity and collaboration. (See Telework up, productivity down? for details.)

Although a few reversals of telework policy do not constitute a trend, those cases can and should sound a note of caution for technology managers who might otherwise be inclined to say OK to telecommuting.

Holbrook says: "These instances get attention because they cut against the grain. The trend is overwhelmingly in the other direction." Nevertheless, in some instances managers or even whole business units have "gone rogue," he says, allowing employees to work from home without the right technology, policies and procedures in place. "It's very possible for a well-meaning manager to shove the employee out of the corporate jet without a parachute," Holbrook warns.

Some telework decisions are fairly obvious -- most managers wouldn't let a new, inexperienced employee telework until he had proven himself, for example -- but there are other, more subtle aspects of a person's character and a company's culture that can make or break a telework arrangement.

Computerworld talked with telework experts and IT managers to find out some of these nuances. Before you say yes to telework, make sure you've asked yourself and your employees these tough questions.

1. Is full-time telecommuting a smart decision?

Some IT jobs will never be candidates for telework. Either the employee is physically required on-site -- to repair client hardware, for example -- or the job requires a lot of communication, interaction and collaboration with others, such as managing relationships between IT and business units.

Other times, the situation is less clear. The work can be performed remotely, but should it be?

Telework is best for those with task-oriented jobs and for people who need little face-to-face communication, says Scott Morrison, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "Can they get through a day's work without leaving their desk?" he asks. "Then they can do their job remotely."

But just because they can doesn't mean they necessarily should. The most successful telework arrangements are those that still bring the worker into the office at least some of the time.

Dennis Cromwell, associate vice president for enterprise infrastructure at Indiana University in Bloomington, lets 10 to 12 of his 75 employees telecommute -- but not every day. They are mostly systems and database administrators who work alone on the computer and communicate chiefly by phone and e-mail. The arrangement has worked well, so well that Cromwell has cut the number of offices that one of his teams requires from six to two.

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