Four Steps to Successful Telecommuting

Today’s guest post is by Carl Foster, who telecommutes for Peppercomm from the great state of Wyoming

MAs 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.

15 thoughts on “Four Steps to Successful Telecommuting

  1. Thanks for your comments, Sam. Those are wise words from Kari. Certainly blanket policies don’t demonstrate that a company values individual differences.

  2. As a fellow full-time telecommuting Peppercommer, everything you say here echoes my experience, Carl. I find myself far more productive at home than I am from an office in almost all activities. My job consists of writing, emailing, and phone calls, for the most part, and telecommuting enables me to be far more productive at all those activities. Like you, I went from working in an office in a major city to working from home in a much smaller city. When I lived in NYC, I had an hour commute into work each way, and now I have a 30-second commute down the stairs. Like you, moving from being a full-time office worker to a full-time telecommuter was driven by family circumstances…in my case, having children and wanting to be closer to my family, since my wife and I are both from Kentucky. This move made a major improvement in my personal life, and–well–any employer that thinks caring about the home life of an employee you value and have invested in is irrelevant is probably not investing in those people to do good work.

    Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think telecommuting is a blanket answer to every company’s problems and employee happiness. I know many people whose work is very team-based in nature and who would probably feel they’d lose a lot of productivity and energy not being in the same physical space. I have a wife who telecommutes as well, which means I am not in complete social isolation each day, and a home that facilitates telecommuting. And I know many who don’t like telecommuting and say they struggle to motivate themselves working from home. Those employees are honest about what they need to succeed as well, and they strive finding an employer that provides a physical space for them to work that enables them to do the best job.

    But the flexibility of working from home that Peppercomm offers me leads to my offering a lot of flexibility in return. I travel to the NYC office fairly often. I spent several days at the San Francisco office this year. I try to keep an eye on email at all times, and I don’t consider this a 9:00-5:30 job.

    That’s where I think you’re spot on with where tracking something like VPN usage goes so wrong.
    My use of the VPN is even less frequent than Mark’s. The computer I VPN onto is a PC, and I greatly prefer a Mac. So I use that computer to get something off the server once in a blue moon, for saving documents to the server once in a blue moon, and for checking something in my old, archived email that isn’t available remotely. That means I may spend an average of 5:00 on the VPN a week.

    I think here of a client of ours–Kari Warburg Block at Earth-Kind. Kari, the company’s CEO, talks about the importance of “growing employees.” Basically, her philosophy is that, if an employee brings great value, it is in both the company’s and the employee’s best interest for the employer to do what they can to enable that employee to do their best work. And that answer isn’t the same from person to person. I feel that Peppercomm has made great strides in solving this equation in the past few years: not just to make employees happy regardless of results, but to invest in facilitating employees who work hard to do their work in the best way possible for their personality and circumstances. That’s what leads to such drastically different work situations from Peppercommer to Peppercommer. It’s not a “perk” being offered to someone as a treat but rather a mutually beneficial business move and investment that facilitates employee loyalty, empowers better work, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for this guest post, Mr. Foster. Spot on.

  3. Thanks, Jessie. That last point is really crucial. We are all telecommuters, and so we all have to build relationships through phone calls and emails and other technologies. In fact, I count a number of ex-clients as friends, and when I think about it, I only met them in person two or three times.

    The same goes for colleagues. Incredibly, I have only met “slacker” Mark once, yet I feel perfectly comfortable mocking him in a public forum. Mark, I will now prepare myself for a retaliatory salvo from Spain…

    • Mr Foster, you have just completely negated your “enormous value” comment with your “I feel perfectly comfortable mocking him in a public forum” comment. I’m going to talk to HR about you.

  4. Great post, Carl. As someone who worked in a satellite office and from home, I agree with your key elements. I too found I was at my highest productivity when working from home as I was able to focus and work uninterrupted as opposed to working in an office where people drop by to catch up on a project. Don’t get me wrong, interacting with your coworkers in person is important to develop rapport, but with technology – via Skype, Twitter, etc. coworkers in different offices can develop relationships and build trust with one another. If someone in the PR industry struggles to create, build and maintain relationships from a distance, they need to work on their skills as we aren’t always in the same city, state or timezone as our clients, members of the media and influencers. As you pointed out, because of technology we are really telecommuting in our day-to-day jobs, regardless of our location.

  5. I’m thinking the apparent “slacker” whose VPN usage is minimal might be me. If so, thanks for your “enormous value” comment, Carl. Indeed, the only time I use the VPN is to send final reports that have taken many hours to compile locally. Telecommuting provides an essential flexibility without which I could not satisfy the requirements of the job. It also, I believe, breeds a mindset that make the worker far more able to respond to client needs whenever they arise as there is no official clocking on or off.

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  7. Good point, Steve. I’d say Mayer’s move was a short term tactic that she will struggle to recover from. I wonder how she finds leading Yahoo after having destroyed trust with her staff following that disingenuous memo.

  8. …and Greg, with the AC being out in the NY office this week, Peppercomm also saved money on buying yet another desk fan.

  9. Chris, thanks for the comment.

    Certainly people who are being unproductive and take advantage of working from home should be fired. But that comes back to point 4. All employees, no matter where they are, should deliver value, just like employees in the office. After all, VPN usage doesn’t equate to productivity or value. A colleague of mine works on his home PC and only logs in if he needs a file from the server. He delivers enormous value to this firm, even though the VPN records suggest he is a slacker.

    Mayer should have fired the abusers and kept the valuable people who work from home. The fact that she introduced a blanket ban (using disingenuous reasons) suggests every single remote Yahoo worker was a slacker, or there was zero management of remote workers.

  10. Great blog, Carl. You totally nailed the productivity angle. I can’t tell you how much more productive I am at home. Life at Peppercomm’s Manhattan office is full of non-stop interruptions. And, I agree with you (and Baldridge about the 150-person rule). Mayer used telecommuting “abuse” as a creative excuse to downsize employees and improve the bottom-line. That’s all that Wall Street cares about (and what she’s rewarded for doing).

  11. Re: Myers decision…she based her actions on a review of LAN usage and many telecommuters had not logged in for weeks. In one case, a telecommuter had actually started a company while on the Yahoo payroll. She took the action her predecessors should have long before.