How to Best Manage Telecommuting

By David Strom  |  Posted 2008-05-19

If you have remote staff, or are considering a revised telecommuting policy, this column is for you. I have had the pleasure and pain of being on both ends here–as an employee and employer.

Done right, telecommuting can be a real morale and productivity booster. Done wrong, it can be a major disaster. I once had an employee running a lobbying group out of his home office.

That wasn’t pretty.

Many companies just say by fiat that they don’t support remote workers. And you might not be able to change that. But if you are willing to take the time, it could be a win-win situation for everyone.

Here are Strom’s 10 rules of telecommuting, split almost evenly between social and technical issues.

1. Agree to set working hours, with some flexibility.

Just because someone is working from home doesn’t mean that they can come and go at their whim. But it doesn’t mean that they have to punch a clock either. Put together some guidelines and make sure everyone knows what is acceptable, and what isn’t.

Be reasonable here. People are going to put in way more hours than they would if they were commuting to the office, so encourage them if they want to leave during the middle of the day to pick up their dry cleaning or work out at the gym. I had some people that were more productive on the night shift and wanted to be off during most of the daylight hours. That is fine, as long as you both understand what is involved.

2. Take every opportunity to meet face-to-face with your staff when you travel.

Often, out of sight is out of mind. I know that when I worked remotely, I really appreciated a face-to-face meeting with the boss when he was in town. Go out of your way to do this whenever possible, it brings an immense amount of goodwill.

3. Have a weekly group teleconference that lasts no more than 30 minutes. 

This is great for team building and morale, but only if it is short and sweet. Make sure that you start the meeting on time and that you give it your priority. Use it as a status update on projects, to praise superior performance and to delegate who will take on unresolved issues.

Don’t use it as a bull session, although there is nothing wrong with a little socializing. And make it a “hard stop” at 30 minutes. At one job, our weekly call was scheduled for 2 p.m. on a Friday. That was everyone’s most hated meeting. Monday mornings are better.

4. Talk to each member of your staff at least every other day via phone. 

This is important: You will hear nuances from how they respond to you. These calls don’t have to be long, but you need to originate them and see what your peeps are up to.

5. Pay for broadband Internet service to the home of any telecommuter, regardless of how much time they are actually working from home.

I know some companies prorate this with complex formulas. Don’t bother. The $30 or so a month is way less than it would cost your company for equivalent bandwidth.

6. Have a help desk person specifically assigned for your telecommuters. 

Standardize on a home router and other gear as much as possible. They should have all the contacts for the broadband ISPs and other providers that are involved, too.

7. Use a common IM client for all internal communications.

Skype and AOL instant messaging seem to be the favorites, and I have used them both over the years to great success. If your company doesn’t yet have much of an IM culture, this is going to be a fight. (Some Neanderthal managers may see it as frivolous.) IM is absolutely essential to successful telecommuter management because you can track people down, or know when they are on a phone call or otherwise engaged.

But, first, you need to make sure that you actually use the software to alert your staff of your working “presence.” Skype is nicer for voice and video chatting, although the newer AOL IM clients have some support for these, too. AOL IM is still the preferred app for parents of teens and pre-teens, so look for those folks to teach the others when you begin your deployment.

8. Get your remote workers on your headquarters VOIP PBX system, if you have one.

If not, your company should pay for a Vonage or AT&T Callvantage or cable voice over IP service that will be their main business line. This has the advantage that you can forward calls to other places, such as their cell phones, and you can have unlimited North American outbound calling at a fixed monthly rate. Also, if your employees move, they can carry their VOIP lines with them without having to change their numbers.

9. Encourage eFax numbers whenever possible, especially if your workers travel and handle confidential documents when on the road.

I can’t tell you the number of times I nervously awaited such a document at a hotel reception desk. eFax automatically routes your faxes as e-mail attachments. There are free numbers for light use (less than 20 inbound pages a month), as long as you don’t care what area code your virtual fax number will be.

10. Find a collaborative solution to share common documents, procedures, corporate forms and so forth.

This can be as simple as a shared Google Docs space, or it can be a more sophisticated Sharepoint application. Whatever it is, make sure that the information is updated regularly.

As you can see, there is a lot of technology–and non-technology–that you need to keep in mind to support a remote “teleworker.” But done right, you will have people who want to work for you for many years, and these people could be corporate superstars with the right motivation.