Telecommuting environments need strong policies

Telecommuting is becoming the de facto way of doing business in many organizations. Considering its many advantages for both employees and employers, this is not surprising. Employees get to operate under a more flexible work schedule, must endure no commute hassles, and can be more productive with fewer interruptions. From the business side, the major benefits include hiring from a wider range of candidates, saving dollars in office space costs when telecommuters use shared offices, and, of course, enjoying improved employee productivity and job satisfaction.

But the world of telecommuting isn't all glowing positives. To make it work, both managers and employees need to commit to an extra effort on the communication front, and provide a broader range of support and workflow options. Without constant face-to-face interactions, working relationships can be much more difficult to foster and maintain.

In the best possible scenario, your company will have the time and resources to build a detailed plan for launching a large-scale telecommuting effort. After all, before taking the telecommuting plunge, many decisions must be made and policies must be designed. Try to set up a task force or find someone with telecommuting experience to lead the charge in creating your telecommuting policies and procedures document.

Telecommuting in the balance

BUSINESS CASE

Some aspects of telecommuting benefit both the company and the employee, whereas others are simply factors that must be dealt with for telecommuting to be a practical reality.

PROS

+ Increased productivity

+ Less office space required

+ Decreased employee turnover rates

+ Increased worker satisfaction

+ Broader job market for hiring new employees

+ Flexible work schedules

+ Reduced commuting time and costs for workers

CONS

- Increased IT support costs

- Loss of office camaraderie

- Communication issues

- Greater management demands

Of course, some members of your staff may already be telecommuting, and driving the need to establish a more structured set of policies and procedures. This can actually be a big benefit when it comes to creating these poliicies. Take a close look at how well the situation is working with these first-adopter telecommuters. Talk to them, talk to their managers, and talk to their co-workers. You will most likely find that they have set up a number of ad hoc procedures that make telecommuting work more smoothly, and you can use them to help design your policies and procedures for other workers.

There are several steps that should be followed to smooth out the support of your telecommuting workers. First off, your company needs to take a close look at the existing workflow and communication habits of the potential telecommuters. Many of these workflow issues will be affected by the change to telecommuting, such as paperwork signoffs and information transfer. If your company relies heavily on face-to-face meetings, these will have to be modified so that teleconferences can take their place. Electronic document formats will need to replace paper unless you plan on using the fax machine heavily on a day-to-day basis.

Secondly, plans need to be made for how remote workers will be given IT support, including infrastructure. Those who telecommute often will need a business phone line and most likely broadband Internet access. Of course, you should take a close look at setting up a VPN to give those workers secure access to the corporate network. Help desk issues also need to be addressed. It won't be practical for support staff to be sent out to the telecommuter's home office on a regular basis, so more detailed online and telephone support needs to be implemented.

Thirdly, the policies that your company has in place for the sharing of information resources (such as telephone, fax, and Internet access) should be extended to encompass the special needs of telecommuters. If you provide a separate business line, there should be restrictions on employees making long-distance calls and such. These policies should also apply to office supplies in the home.

Implementing telecommuting step-by-step

1. Determine how workflow may be affected by telecommuting workers, such as signing off on paperwork, transferring files and information, and other processes that could require special consideration when the employee is not in the office.

2. Make plans for supporting remote workers. Specifically, establish a policy for resources such as business telephone lines, Internet and VPN access from the remote location, and help desk support.

3. Set up polices for acceptable use of office equipment at home, including personal Internet and telephone use during business hours. These should be similar to the policies in place in the office.

4. Put specific performance expectations in place and plan for how performance appraisals will be handled.

5. Start a pilot program for telecommuting workers to test out various policies and procedures already in place. Make changes as needed before starting a general rollout of telecommuting to the company at large.

6. Roll out the telecommuting policies and procedures in full. Review these periodically to determine if they truly meet the needs of your telecommuting workers and workflow.

Similar to the way that information resource policies are designed, existing performance appraisal and review guidelines need to be tweaked to accommodate remote workers. It is a common misconception that remote workers often sit around at home watching TV on company time. In fact, most people find that they are more productive when working at home without the many distractions present in the office.

Once you're feeling confident about the policies you have created, it is time to do a test rollout of your telecommuting scheme. If you already have telecommuters, this may not be critical, but it is nevertheless good to get a feeling for how the telecommuting policies you've set up will affect them. This is the perfect time to make major changes to policy if you find that something doesn't work or is impractical.

Finally, once things are going smoothly with your pilot program, it is time to make a more general rollout. Education is the key here. Make sure that prospective employees understand and agree to the policies and procedures that you have set up. Things will go much more smoothly if everyone involved understands their responsibilities and how those will change for the telecommuting worker.

Telecommuting can be a great benefit for both the businesses and the employees involved. Employees save time and stress by eliminating their commute, they have fewer distractions, and they can work on a more flexible schedule. Businesses see key benefits in drawing from a larger pool of potential employees, keeping existing employees happier, and reaping the increased productivity of those telecommuting workers. Of course, there are downsides to telecommuting as well. But with an extra effort toward communication and with a good set of policies in place, the benefits can far outweigh the downsides.

This story, "Telecommuting environments need strong policies" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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