Telecommuting: Not All Have the Right Stuff

Julie Shenkman
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Still wondering whether you'll have to reckon with telecommuting? Consider this: In a recent survey by Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, Inc., an international outplacement firm, 43 percent of human resources professionals said an increasingly mobile, telecommuting workforce will be the biggest trend in the 21st-century workplace. But don't send all of your employees home just yet.

"Not everyone is right for telecommuting," cautions Debra A. Dinnocenzo, president of ALLearnatives, a firm that provides resources for telecommuters, telemanagers, and home-based workers. Some employees, she says, simply "don't have the right personality traits." So how do you find out which of your employees is best suited for telecommuting? And what, in general, can you do to make your program successful?

Dinnocenzo, herself a veteran telecommuter and author of the book "101 Tips for Telecommuter" (Berret-Loehler Publishers, 1999), offers some help. For starters, she provides a self-analysis guide. Besides helping telecommuting candidates find out whether they've got the right stuff, it can help employers identify roadblocks for their programs. She concentrates on four areas:

Personality traits and preferences
Job appropriateness
Home office space/environment
Family support

Dinnocenzo asks those undergoing the analysis to look carefully at how well they work independently and how much feedback they need from their supervisors or co-workers. They should also consider how well they work with family members around, and whether they have proper space at home for an office.

"Not only do you have to have the right space, but you need a place that lets you be productive," she says. "For instance, you don't want to have your home office in a place like a dark and dingy basement or in an attic that was never designed for someone to spend more than three minutes in it.

"In addition, you will need to have a family that is supportive and understanding. But telecommuters have to recognize that they need to distance themselves to a certain extent from their families when they are working. In fact, I think it is very appropriate for employers to require telecommuters with children to show proof that they have adequate childcare arrangements, if they are being paid for full-time work." Once employees have used the self-assessment, the results can help companies make the telecommuting experience work better for these workers. Dinnocenzo offers the following suggestions:

Develop an e-communication culture within your organization, so that when someone says all new communications will be posted on the bulletin board, employees are thinking "intranet," not "corkboard in the lunchroom". This allows remote employees access to current information.

Think creatively when it comes to other ways to communicate with remote employees. Not all of your employees will have easy access to the Internet or intranet, so they may need information left on their voice mail or a fax sent to their location. Employer and employees must be able to reach each other easily. As part of this, employees need to make everyone aware of their appointments. Though people in corporate offices think nothing of leaving voice-mail messages for each other, many often assume that a telecommuter who doesn't answer the phone immediately must be off shopping or doing something else not work-related. If you are setting up a teleconference or a videoconference, fax or e-mail the agenda ahead of time so that everyone can review it before the meeting. If you cannot reach everyone this way, then spend the first few minutes of the conference going over the agenda. Also, be aggressive about ensuring everyone's participation. Instead of doing the round-robin type of questioning, you need to say, "So, how does everyone in Birmingham feel about this?" or "What opinion do those of you in San Jose have?" You need to do this because people sometimes find it hard to jump into conversations where they're not physically present.

Training Tips

As with any other program, training is key: Have employees do a self-assessment to see where they may encounter some pitfalls. Draw up guidelines for how to communicate and keep track of work times. Give more guidance than just laying down the rules. Employees need to see how these rules and suggestions work; that means pointing out good role models for them.

Some Don'ts

Don't use telecommuting as a perk. It shouldn't be used so that employees can stay home with their children. Telecommuters with children should be expected to have childcare arrangements when they work.

Don't use telecommuting as a way to get work out of an employee who recently fell ill or underwent surgery. Someone recovering from an illness or an operation needs to spend time resting and getting better.


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