Productivity software

Telecommuting: 6 Questions to Ask Before You Say Yes

2. How Will You Define and Measure Performance?

Most experienced managers stress that you must establish "well-defined deliverables" for teleworkers, and then judge performance accordingly.

On the face of it, that approach seems simple enough. For task-oriented jobs, it's easy to measure performance in terms of output. For an IT support person, for example, you might track how many tickets he handled per day and whether problems were successfully solved.

But such an approach implies that it doesn't matter how much or little time it takes to do the job. And that raises a sometimes thorny question: Are you paying employees for their output, their time, or both? Some people work faster or more efficiently than others, especially when working from home. If an employee hits his output working only four hours a day, is that a win-win situation or poor use of a company's business asset?

"People say they manage by results, but they also like to know whether the person is only active a few hours a day," says Eric Spiegel, CEO and co-founder of software start-up XTS Inc. In a previous job as an IT manager, Spiegel had bad experiences allowing staff to telework. Members of his team were sometimes unavailable during work hours, and he had trouble scheduling meetings.

To avoid such problems, he says, you should decide upfront whether meeting deliverables is enough, or whether you will require employees to be at their phone and computer at certain times and for a certain number of hours.

3. Will Creativity Suffer?

Beyond the hours vs. output debate, there's a larger question, one that pertains particularly to jobs where deliverables can't be easily quantified: Are you getting the same level of intellectual investment from your remote employees as you would if they were in the office?

In software design, for example, innovation and creative ideas can be the most valuable output. Should you measure performance based on creativity? Will workers be more creative at home or less?

Perhaps you should measure based on quality rather than quantity. And if so, what constitutes high quality? The answers will depend on the type of job and the type of person. The important thing is to have a frank discussion of what's expected -- including intangibles like creativity -- before you allow an employee to telework, with the understanding that the arrangement could be changed if agreed-upon measures decline.

Today, all seven of Spiegel's employees telework. The difference, he says, is that they are all senior-level people whom he's personally hired. Thanks to stock options and equity interest, they are highly motivated. As an added bonus, he sees no justification for office space at this point in his young company's development.

Even so, he advises managers to proceed with caution. "If I had to go back and manage a support team at a Fortune 1,000 company, I'd take a different stance," Spiegel says. "I'd want more control over what teleworkers are doing."

4. How Will Telework Affect Collaboration?

Think about the culture of your organization and how the employee fits into it. Some people are naturally creative, innovative and inspirational, notes Robert Keefe, president of the Society for Information Management and senior vice president and CIO for Mueller Water Products Inc. They stimulate discussion and generate ideas, and others like to work with them.

"Some people are like the gel that holds the organization together," says Keefe. The organization would lose something if that person worked remotely 100% of the time. "That's a very soft intangible, but something that's often overlooked in team dynamics," says Keefe.

Yankee Group's Holbrook applauds managers who attend to the communication question. Some companies, he explains, are more reliant than others on informal communication, where an employee just walks down the hall to IT to solve a problem or hash out an idea. Moving a key IT employee out of that picture could upset that delicate balance.

Intel, for example, relies on a high level of collaboration, according to Intel CIO Diane Bryant. The company found that projects were much more efficiently completed when all the IT workers were at one site rather than spread out over two or more sites -- or in remote locations.

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