Today’s guest post is by Carl Foster, who telecommutes for Peppercomm from the great state of Wyoming
As a full-time telecommuter, I have watched the debate about working from home with interest. Sparked by Marissa Mayer’s diktat that all Yahoo employees must physically be together in the office, the debate has generated endless column inches on the pros and cons of working from home. Recently, I have seen pitches for webinars, seminars and other training sessions that promise ways to make remote workers more productive and more engaged. For anyone tempted to take one of these, let me save you some money. The success of telecommuting does not rest on the state of your technology or your management technique; it rests on a state of mind, both of the employer and employee.
Of course, the state of mind that enables telecommuting to thrive cannot be adopted overnight. Like good customer service, it’s not something that can be switched on and off like a tap.
So what elements make up this state of mind? I believe there are four key elements:
1. Trust-based relationships – Trust is central to successful telecommuting, both for the company and the employee. Trust is built over time. The most successful telecommuters I know have worked for their employer for years. Working in the office and then becoming a telecommuter helps shortcut the relationship and trust-building, but it’s not a prerequisite.
2. Small-group cohesion – In “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell noted the Rule of 150, the general idea being that once a group – whether it be a company division or an army division – has more than 150 individuals, people no longer know everyone in the group. More importantly, they don’t know what everyone else knows. At Peppercomm, I know everyone and everyone knows me. Sure, I work with some people more closely than others, but I know who to go to if I need something, and people know what I know and can come to me for my expertise and experience. If Peppercomm were to grow to more than 150 employees, telecommuting might become an obstacle for building and maintaining these relationships, but, for now, we are the perfect size.
3. Availability – For the employee, when you are working from home you are working – the “from home” bit is irrelevant. In the office, people email, IM and call, and you respond appropriately. It’s the same at home. The working day is one big multifaceted conversation. Between email, IM and phone calls, you’re not just a part of that conversation, you can be leading it.
4. Quality work shines through – At the end of the day, it’s all about the product. If the employee produces quality work and delivers value to the firm, it doesn’t matter where it was produced. (As an aside, this is what strikes me as the most surprising part of the Yahoo ruling. If people were performing well and delivering value then why get rid of them simply because of their location? If they were not performing well and delivering value they should have been laid off a long time ago, regardless of their location.)
No commentary on telecommuting would be complete without mentioning two key parts of the debate: Productivity and collaboration. I believe these two arguments are redundant if the four elements above are achieved. I am undoubtedly more productive at home than when I visit the office in New York, or when I worked full-time in our London office. I know many people who agree. But really, with even the most basic levels of management, it is clear if someone is being productive. It’s not a question of whether people in general are more or less productive at home, but whether individuals are productive – see point 4. As for in-person collaboration, some of the best brainstorms I have contributed to have been via phone or Skype. I know everyone on the call and I’ll butt in when I want to – see point 1 and 2. Also, in many ways, in-person collaboration means creativity and idea generation. While there can be no replacement for all physically getting in a room, some of the best ideas need time and space to develop. I have had some good ideas while walking across London Bridge or down Fifth Avenue, but some of my best ideas have fallen straight out of the big, empty Wyoming sky.
My final thought on this: why is this even a debate? First, telecommuting enables companies to hire and retain talented employees, making them happier and more loyal. Second, evermore congested cities coupled with technological advances mean that telecommuting is a trend that will grow exponentially. Banning it is akin to King Canute trying holding back the tide. Finally, aren’t we all remote workers these days? Even if you sit in an office in a major metropolitan area, your boss can be in another part of town, your colleague in another part of the country, and your client in another part of the world. To make this increasingly common situation work, people could do a lot worse than adopt the four points above.