The Telecommuting Myth

Monday Sep 17th 2007 by Eric Spiegel
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A tech manager finds a mixed experience with telecommuting.

I’m a total hypocrite. This realization pains me, but after many years of championing the cause of telecommuting, I’m finding reality to be different than the utopian telecommuting environment I envisioned for IT workers.

I’m sure you telecommuters out there will not care much for my perspectives and you may have found different, more positive experiences. However, with all the popular press recently pushing the flex work environment, I feel the other side of the coin should be explored.

To help you understand how I arrived at my conclusions about telecommuting, it will help to provide some history.

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First let me start with a question. Did you ever write an email to the CIO or CEO about some pet cause to improve the life of your fellow IT workers (like telecommuting)? Kind of a slippery slope. If they like what you are advocating, then you could be seen as a hero. If they don’t like it, well, you could be seen walking out the door with your bags packed. Or even worse, you may never hear anything back and always wonder if there is a little black mark next to your name in some deep HR vault.

I actually sent such an email to the CEO of the consulting firm where I worked as a new grad fresh out of college. I asked if we could seriously consider more telecommuting options. And he wrote me back! Something about how executive management was always seeking ways to improve employee morale and productivity.

And you know what? I really was encouraged to do much more telecommuting after that email. One small problem though. It was only after a full day in the office and an hour commute home that I had the pleasure of working remotely deep into the night.

Ok, strike one.

But I wasn’t discouraged – after all it was better than staying in the office all night. So at my next job, this time at a large insurance firm, I wrote the CIO a similar email. I was pushing for more flexibility in hours for on-call support staff, including telecommuting. He actually invited me to meet with him.

(Side moral to the story – don’t be afraid to email executives with suggestions. I found most people don’t and thus if you do AND you have something useful to say, the response is generally positive. Don’t worry, as long as you don’t call he or she a moron, you are not likely to get fired.)

I digress! Back to the telecommuting myth. I met with the CIO and he asked me to write up a plan that would help on-call staff deal with the weird hours and the burden of carrying a beeper (no cell phones existed yet – if they did I could have IM’d the CIO!)

I wrote up the plan, sent it for review, and they ended up outsourcing the entire group. Everyone could telecommute – from India! Depressing, isn’t it?

Strike two.

I eventually found myself managing a support team. So this will be a home run, right? I can champion the cause for flexible hours and telecommuting by having my team become a shining example of flex time.

This is where the hypocrite realization hit home.

At first, everything was hunky dory. Some staff chose to work from home a couple days per week. Others just came in late morning and left late, while others chose to come in early and leave early. If people had errands to run during the day, they could leave the office and come back whenever they pleased.

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And work was getting done. At least, it seemed to be. Then the problems started to slowly creep to the surface.

First, a customer called in for support and got voice mail during business hours. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Worse, they didn’t get a call back for over an hour – a bit out of our 15 minute response time SLA. Turns out the support engineer was on an errand and forgot to forward his phone to a coworker, let alone his mobile number.

Second, it was difficult to schedule meetings where everyone was available. Meetings that were being scheduled early morning or late afternoon were not well attended. I’m not referring to a 9am meeting. No, this was more like 10:30am and half the team wouldn’t show. But most would dial in, so you’d think “what’s the problem?”

The meetings would be unproductive because there was a lack of interaction, frequent miscommunication, and frankly it was unproductive when we kept having to repeat ourselves to the person with the bad cell connection on the speaker phone. Contrary to those cell phone commercials, yelling “Can you hear me now?” doesn’t help much.

Third, just enough work was getting done. There wasn’t any extra effort being put in. People likely weren’t working eight hours. The argument that I used to use was that people could be more productive if they controlled their schedules. I have found that to be false for the majority. Give people an inch and they take a mile.

Finally, team cohesion and spirit was dying. For those working very hard, there was suspicion and lack of trust that coworkers were putting in the same effort. If they weren’t in sight, the thought was that they must not be working hard.

The good team members started quitting from frustration, leaving the slacking telecommuters, and then productivity declined sharply, including decreased customer satisfaction with our support response.

The good news is that there are management methods that would help improve these results. But I have come to the conclusion that the majority of people in IT cannot be counted on to be productive, accountable telecommuters or effectively manage a flex-schedule.

I can hear the jeering and hissing through my computer speakers, so let me be clear.

I’m not saying the benefits of spending more time with family, reducing your carbon footprint (“green” is in after all) and having less stress from commuting are not worth giving these telecommuting programs a go. I have certainly seen success on smaller teams working remotely, even geographically dispersed. What I am saying is that you should not take for granted that most people will easily adapt and be productive in a more flexible environment.

It certainly didn’t work out well for me on my first go around, so…

Strike three.

I’m out.

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