For Tech Staffers, Working Remotely Requires More Than Wi-Fi and a Desk
Web services, VoIP and other technology may have turned any place with an Internet connection into an office and decreased the importance of an IT professional's location, but a range of factors contribute to how enterprise telecommuting policies are developed and who should untether from the traditional workplace, said IT executives and staffing professionals.
Operating a business that sells and uses cloud computing products makes telecommuting possible for all jobs at RightScale in Santa Barbara, California. The firm's cloud-based servers can only be accessed remotely via Web tools and "you can do that anywhere you want," said Rafael Saavedra, vice president of engineering and a founder of the company, which offers cloud computing infrastructure management products as a service.
The telecommuting option is not granted automatically and employees must demonstrate to management that they are comfortable with working offsite, he said.
"In the same way you have to be competent technically, we have to convince ourselves that you can work remotely," Saavedra said. "If we hire you to be a remote person, it's because we believe you're going to be successful. If we hire local, you have the option to move, but we have to make sure that its going to work out."
It's key for employees to show how well they can work offsite since that counts for around 70 percent of management's decision, Saavedra said.
Convincing management requires employees to show, among other criteria, that their preferred work environment will lead to productivity and they won't miss interacting with co-workers. Previous telecommuting experience also helps, he said.
RightScale makes efforts to virtually link employees to the home office. When remote workers join Saavedra's department they spend several weeks at RightScale's headquarters to establish relationships with their co-workers. Meeting colleagues helps remote employees feel comfortable interacting with co-workers when they return to their offsite location, he said.
"They don't feel pigeonholed and say 'I don't know anyone' and 'I don't know if I can interrupt this person'," Saavedra said.
To give remote workers "constant interaction" with co-workers, the company holds daily calls with all developers during which they discuss their projects and any issues they are having. In addition, remote workers use Web cameras to participate in meetings and RightScale conference rooms are equipped with cameras so offsite workers can see their colleagues.
Despite RightScale's efforts to connect its remote workforce, Saavedra realizes that a factor beyond the company's control also influences an employee's telecommuting experience.
"It depends on the particular person," he said. "We have had some cases of competent engineers who worked from home, but they were really unhappy because they needed constant interaction with people. But others have been doing it for five years and they love it."
A distributed workforce gives RightScale a wider candidate pool to select from in a market where "competition for talent is fierce" given the many tech firms located in Santa Barbara, he said.
"We're forced to look at talent where that talent is," he said. "Sometimes they're willing to come to Santa Barbara, but many times they are happy to work with us, but they do it from their hometown."
The demand for tech workers has made more businesses open to considering remote candidates, but staff who work outside the office is "still not a preference for most companies," said Vimal Shyamji, a partner and general manager of the National Technology Contracts division at staffing firm Winter, Wyman.
A New York tech firm Shyamji was working with initially considered a telecommute candidate located in North Carolina to fill a position requiring Ruby on Rails development skills. The company decided not to go with the out-of-state applicant after finding local candidates.
Employees contemplating working remotely should consider their career goals and the value of face time before setting up their home office, Shyamji advised.
"If you are looking for a more senior level role then you probably need to be seen and heard with your peers as well as with management to make that progression," he said.
A job's main duties can impact how successfully it translates to a virtual model, Shyamji said. Business analysts who interview end users then explain their tech needs to IT staffers may find their job "a lot more challenging if [they are] not physically seeing people," he said.
Even software developers, a traditionally solitary IT position, may find they too can benefit from human interaction.
"Anything that's pure development definitely works pretty well remotely," Shyamji said. "But even on the technical side once you get into heavy architecture there sometimes needs to be more collaboration that might need to be done in person versus on Skype."
For companies that do permit telecommuting, employees and managers need to set communication guidelines, he said. Both parties should understand the hours that the remote workers will be available, how best to contact them and what is an acceptable time frame for them to respond to a co-worker. A seamless interaction between a telecommuter and the office should be the objective.
"Setting appropriate expectations to the smallest degree will save every manager and employee a lot of frustration," Shyamji said. "If it is imminently more difficult to reach you than it is the person down the hall that's not a good situation for you."
For a company that has no halls or office and whose entire staff work remotely, like tech consulting and Web development company Aydus Consulting, establishing guidelines on when to connect helps everyone stay on track.
"In a distributed environment it needs to be more structured," said partner, developer and company co-founder Mark Valenti. "Things run a lot smoother once you have those kinds of pieces in place rather than call me when you need me."
The decision to operate virtually was part of the 3-year-old company's initial philosophy for many reasons, said Valenti. Being a startup, the business wanted to avoid the costs involved with operating an office. And determining where to locate an office would prove challenging since Valenti and the company's other co-founder want to live in different states.
"Aydus is a core of four," he said. "That's two in Montana, two in California. It just simply doesn't make any sense at the end of the day [to have an office]," he said.
A virtual office fits with a company that works in the Web space where physical interactions are not required to complete tasks "so why not have an organization that matches the technology that we're working in," explained Valenti. "Amazon is primarily online and they're not talking about setting up big Amazon department stores. We're the same. We're not talking about setting up a big Aydus office."
To complete projects Aydus uses Web services like Dropbox to store files and Evernote to share notes. A service provider handles the company's server needs and employee hardware purchases are reimbursed annually, Valenti said.
"Software is just so virtual," Valenti said. "Its just about getting the work done and being there for clients when they need us. It doesn't really matter if you work from midnight through 6 a.m. and then sleep. More often than no, people are very positive about being remote."
Aydus' distributed work model has so far worked for projects, he said. The business has yet to find a project or issue that working remotely cannot address, he said. Telecommuting has also proved popular with the staff and only one person expressed concern at telecommuting since he lacked a good home office, Valenti said.
Job duties help determine if telecommuting is right for a certain position, said Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis. Development jobs lend themselves to remote work as long as the employees complete projects on time and are easily reachable, he said.
"With development there's not this normal 9-to-5 work mindset," he said. "A lot of these people like to work late at night. They work at the hours that are most conducive to them."
Expect to be working in an office if your job requires managing hardware, Cullen said.
"For infrastructure-related work, you've got to be onsite," he said. "Offsite [work] does allow itself much more on the application development side and very rarely on the infrastructure side."
Cullen thinks telecommuting is a perk and sees employers preferring that their staff work onsite. Companies understand the need to offer schedule flexibility to attract and retain talent and have created policies that apply to all departments. However, even employees who can telecommute aren't totally exempt from not going to the office.
"There's the expectation that at least for part of the week you're onsite," he said. "Its not this completely offsite mindset."
Companies want employees who can work in their environment and have turned down applicants who want employers to meet their schedules. He suggests a uniform corporate telecommuting policy instead of making individual exceptions.
There are still benefits to coworkers gathering around the office water cooler, he said.
"There's a lot of value to that camaraderie," said Cullen. "You're having discussions then and there to solve problems."