Telecommuting Pitfalls

September 30, 2008

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about telecommuting.  I’ve been writing about how important telecommuting is to  many Gen Y employees (and others) and how employers should try to be flexible in this area.  I still believe this to be true, but I’ve also been haunted by three stories that demonstrate the importance of face-to-face interaction, and sometimes just “being there.”

Casual Chats – Critical Impact

One of my roles at Microsoft many years ago was in the Product Support Services (PSS) area where I was responsible for assuring that IT was building the tools PSS needed.  My office was on the same floor as the Diane (name changed,) the PSS Vice President’s.  At least once a day we’d cross paths in the hall.  Our initial hallway chats were mostly about the weather and her recent relocation from Minneapolis. 

But, within a week, those brief conversations started to evolve.  Diane would ask me the status of a project or casually mention a meeting she was preparing for.  I would give Diane a heads up on a project that might run a little late, tell her about about a project that was going great, or ask a question about the direction a critical decision was headed. I began to start my day by creating a brief “hallway chat” list of topics I wanted to discuss with Diane or things I thought she should know.  Sure we also participated in more formal meetings, generally with others in attendance, but these casual chats helped both of us “check in” and gave us the opportunity to discuss things that were important, but not important enough to call a meeting for.

I didn’t realize how important those casual chats were until there was a broader reorganization and my group relocated to a different floor.  Since we no longer crossed paths on a daily basis, those casual chat opportunities were lost.  I realized how much I missed them when I got caught flat footed in a meeting because I wasn’t current on (or told about) a topic we previously would have touched base on in a hallway discussion.  To make a long story short (or shorter <sigh>) I tried several ways to stay in that casual loop, but none of them worked as well as those hallway discussions.  Due to this and several other events, the IT group and my effectiveness flailed, Diane’s frustration grew, and I eventually moved to another job within the company.  Those unscheduled chats had had a huge impact on my ability to do my job successfully.  I missed them and my performance suffered.

Out of “Site” – Do just what’s asked

One of my career-launcher clients and I were talking about his summer internship.  He liked the work and the people, but, one of things he appreciated most was the flexibility.

 Our conversation went something like this.

“I can work whenever and wherever I want as long as I get the job done,” he told me. 

“Are you doing good work?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Are you doing great work?” I asked.

“It’s not that kind of work.” he replied.  “They’re asking me to fix things.  It’s binary.  They’re either fixed or they’re not.  There’s no opportunity for great.  I’ve fixed everything they’ve asked me to fix and I do it in far less time than they estimate.”

“What do you do with the extra time?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied

“Do you tell them that it took less time than expected and ask for other projects?” I asked.

He looked at me like I had two heads and replied “No” with a <duh> tone of voice.

“So, in the time they’re paying you for, you could do more for them.  You could also be learning more.  Right?” I asked

No response.

“If you were on site for your full hourly commitment, do you think you’d get more work done for them?” I asked.

“Probably,” he replied.

“So, you could be great by asking for more than they expect of you, couldn’t you?” I asked.

“I guess so” he said sheepishly.

This is a wonderful, hardworking student and it never crossed his mind that he should think about further exceeding expectations. To him, nailing every project request by the deadline was exceeding expectations, and perhaps it was.  But I’m struck by how much more both he and his employer could have gotten out of this working relationship.

Advice to Interns – See the Bigger Picture

When I ran the IS Internship Program at the University of Washington, I required a weekly status reports from each intern.  By week three it was clear that they were generally doing well and were very focused on the tasks they were assigned.  That was when my advice pointed them to look at the bigger picture.  Sure they were hired to do a job, but mostly they were hired so their employers could determine whether this intern would be a longer term fit for the company.  Sure the intern wanted job experience, but a great internship provides a richer look at the company, soft skills growth, and a networking jumpstart.  Increasing their skill set is just the beginning.

I advised them to use their time with the company to its fullest; request to sit in on planning sessions, schedule a lunch or coffee chat with an influencial person at the company, offer to help out in big and small ways, recommend changes to processes that could use improvements with an offer to be part of the solution.  That not only gets an intern noticed, but provides a richer, more complete intern experience than simply doing a task and learning a new skill.  Those things are much more difficult if the intern is not on site.

One aspect of the internship relationship that reduces its overall effectiveness is that, with the exception of summer internships, most internships are part time.  It’s very difficult to make traction as a part time employee in a full time world.  Every day feels like Monday and you never seem to be around when the cool, random projects are assigned.  It’s not an intentional oversight.  But “out of site,” can also be out of mind, or the project needs to be assigned to someone the manager has easy access to.

 

CHALLENGES FOR THE TELECOMMUTER

While telecommuting can help employees make more effective use of their time and can save money on gas/parking etc., it can come at a price especially for organizations with a more traditional culture.

Perception of not there = not working

For companies that don’t have a lot of people telecommuting, there can be a perception that “no there = not working.”  Here are two examples.

A colleague was talking about how one of the benefits of telecommuting was the opportunity to focus and work without as many of the interruptions that occur when he’s in his office.  He mentioned that he was going to “Take the day off to write performance reviews at home.”  Is he taking time off?  No, he’s doing his job.  He’s being extra conscientious in knowing the importance and challenge of writing a fair, accurate, thoughtful, constructive and valuable performance review.  I asked if it would be different if he was not at home, but was at a nearby coffee shop?  His response was that he’d still feel guilty.

This conversation left me wondering how successfully and comfortably a manager who feels guilty not being in the office even when he’s truly working can manage a generation who can work anywhere.

Another colleague was talking about how one of her employees works at home, not all the time, but on a regularly scheduled basis to accommodate a child care schedule.  Others on the staff were reluctant to contact the telecommuter at home and found themselves looking for someone “there” to do a task that was the telecommuter’s role.  My colleague found herself reminding the staff, “Call her, she’s working.”

Lost opportunities

Not every workplace project is well planned in advance.  When a new, urgent project arises, who gets the assignment?  Generally the person nearby and not the person working from home.  There is often not a deliberate thought of “To whom should I assign this?”  It’s who can get this addressed fast.  Also, while a new employee might not be thought of to lead a key project, if that employee is nearby when things heat up, there’s a greater likelihood to be asked to be involved, not just to help the project, but also as a growth and development opportunity.  These opportunities are so important to Gen Y’s job satisfaction.  But both they and their managers need to make decisions that will help those opportunities fall into place organically.  No one can say, “I promise you that you should work on site tomorrow because I have a feeling that a hot new project will come out of nowhere.”  It just doesn’t work that way.  Sometimes you just have to be more available when the unexpected arises.

Less connection

Email, text messaging and phone calls are a great way to communicate for many things.  But you can miss the nuances of tone when combined with visual cues that help you to understand whether someone is quietly pleased or borderline irritated.  Also, if a meeting is happening on site, there’s a reluctance to conference someone in.  It changes the meeting as the person on the phone is either overlooked or given excessive attention.  If everyone is calling in, that’s one thing.  If one person is offsite, it just doesn’t work as well.  So unless you’re a critical team member, you’ll probably miss the opportunity to be in on a meeting if you’re not there.

There are also unpredicatable conversations like the opportunity to be in an elevator with the CEO etc. that just won’t happen when you’re off site.

And then there’s just the magic of place and the shared experience of being in the same place at the same time.  Think about your college experience.  If you had done all your college work online, you might have learned as much academically, but think of what you’d have missed; the depth of friendships with your classmates, really getting to know certain professors (who can prove to be great references later on,) study groups over pizza, participation in student groups etc.  While you can do some of those things remotely, it takes longer to establish those relationships and connection.  Loyalty comes more from those relationships than the institutions themselves.  Place matters.  Perhaps not 100% of the time, but it’s much harder at 10%.

CONCLUSION

When navigating how to manage a staff where employees are telecommuting some or all of the time, the complexity of telecommuting forces the question of whether an employee is being paid for a number of hours worked or to get a project/task/job done.  Much depends on the role and type of work.  But clearly this topic will require discussion, decisions and clarity around unspoken givens.  Managers will need to define metrics and measurable to clarify expectations for their employees and confirm for themselves that the right work is getting done.  As these discussions unfold, it is important to realize that with 7 X 24 hour access, most employees likely work far more hours than they’re being compensated for.

Hiring employees who can work independently will become more important.  It will be critical to hire those who will be able to fight the distraction temptations and stay on task, and to seek out employees who will become committed to their project, their team, their management and their company.  Employees who only work hard when they’re being watched will not become successful telecommuters.  Make sure you hire the employees who can be successful in both an on-site and telecommuting model.

Accept for yourself and for others that not being in the office does not mean not working.  But also encourage your new employees to be on-site more.  It may not always be “necessary,” but it can often be valuable in unpredictable ways.

 

For Gen Y employees, especially if this is your first professional job, be sure you see both side of telecommuting.  On one side it surely helps you to be more efficient as you don’t have potentially long commutes and can save money on parking and gas.

But see the downside too.  See the temptation to do just what’s assigned and ask yourself if you would have done a better job if you gave it more time.  Ask yourself if there are projects you’re not being assigned because you’re not on-site when your manager gets the idea or the impromptu meeting that you miss because it’s just not the same to have a meeting in a conference room with someone else on speaker phone.  Think about the way people get to know each other and the opportunities missed by not being there.  Your generation can make quick and true connection with people you never meet.  But many of the people you need to connect with at work are not of your generation. 

Even though it goes against your efficiency inclinations, spend time at the office, even if you don’t “need” to be there.  Be a bit more casual with your time, especially at the start of a new job. 

Think about the bigger picture of your job.  It’s not just about getting the work done and getting it done well.  It’s not just about meeting expectations, it’s about exceeding them.  For some projects, just good enough is fine.  For others, those subtle differences can impact success or failure, a promotion or staying at a current level.  These are not black and white issues.  They’re far more subtle.

It’s about being a part of an organization and that’s much harder to do if you’re not there.

Comments

One Response to “Telecommuting Pitfalls”

  1. Josh Maxwell on September 30th, 2008 5:00 am

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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