Like many of you, I was surprised to see Yahoo’s recent announcement that employees will no longer be allowed to work from home.  The responses in the media have been predictably varied and, at times, harsh.  Yahoo’s rationale, at least the explanation I have seen, is that collaboration and innovation work better when people are physically together.  Fair enough, although one could make the argument that everyone doesn’t need to be together all of the time. That, however, is another discussion entirely.

One of the concerns expressed by many has been the possibility that other companies may jump on the no telecommuting  band wagon for all of the wrong reasons (or, alternatively, competitors may see this as an opportunity to poach some top notch talent).  Time will tell.  One thing that has struck me in reading several of the commentaries is that telecommuting is seen strictly in the light of working from home. I believe that most of the problems organizations encounters with remote workers are a result of poor planning, unclear rules and vague expectations. To be successful, telecommuting programs need clear rules, goals and structure in order to work well in practice. It is a lot more than just working from home.

I was fortunate during the course of my career to serve as an executive sponsor for two highly successful telecommuting programs.  They were successful in large part because of the structure and processes we put in place and because we developed clear measures of success.  Here are some of the things we learned from our experience.

Telecommuting is not a substitute for child care or other caregiver responsibilities.– Too often I hear being able to care for children or elderly parents at home as a rationale for telecommuting.  As anyone who has ever raised small children knows, kids are demanding, noisy and distracting.  The same can be the case for an elderly relative living in your home.  This simply isn’t conducive to being productive and should not be allowed.  In both of our programs telecommuters were required to make separate childcare or other caregiver arrangements for the time they were working from home.

Not everyone is suited to be a telecommuter. – Just as some jobs are not well-suited for telecommuters, some people are not well-suited.  Unless you are disciplined, focused and capable of self-managing, telecommuting may not work well.  In one company we developed an assessment that potential telecommuters had to take in order to see if they were a good fit.  Obviously, prior management approval and acceptable performance reviews were also required.

Have a written “contract” between manager and employee.– A written agreement between the telecommuter and their manager specifying things like availability, frequency of communication, work hours, etc. can go a long ways towards avoiding problems later on.  It also encourages an up-front discussion between manager and employee as to how the working arrangement will be structured.  In one organization, for instance, we specified that the employee, at a minimum had to be available at a specified telephone number during telecommuting hours, forward their office phone to a specified telephone number where the employee could be reached, check voicemail at least three times per day and check and respond to email a minimum of three times per day.  Agreeing to these things up front can save problems later on and also provide clear indicators of performance.

 Conduct mandatory up-front training– Develop a training program that covers all of the company policies, explains how to get help for technical problems, and covers helpful tips and techniques for being productive. Think of this as an orientation but make it mandatory.  Being clear about the rules and expectations is critical.

Develop a telecommuter agreement– In both programs all telecommuters, after completing training, signed and agreed to a telecommuter agreement which outlined all of the company rules, policies and procedures applicable to the program. 

Address potential liability issues up front.– Legal advice is important here.  If someone falls down the stairs in their home while telecommuting is the company liable for a workman’s compensation claim?  What about the person who develops a repetitive motion injury from working at a kitchen table instead of a properly-designed desk?  It is important to think about these up front.  In one company we provided a furniture allowance and a catalog of acceptable office furniture for home use.  We also did “home inspections” to insure that there was adequate and sufficient space.  That may be overkill for many companies but it was considered important to our risk mitigation strategy.

Be clear on how technology will be supported.– In the “old days” before ubiquitous high speed internet, the company paid for and supported everything.  Now most people have in-home connectivity.  Does the company pay for it, part of it, or none of it? Will you support a printer that the employee owns?  During what hours will support be provided?  All of these things need to be worked out in advance, covered in the training program and spelled out in the telecommuter agreement. In one company, we choose to not support local printing and required employees to supply their own internet connectivity.  If they encountered problems, they were required to come to the office. “My internet isn’t working” was not an acceptable excuse for not working.

Develop measures of success.– Why are you allowing employees to telecommute in the first place?  Define it and measure it. In one company, one of our reasons was to better utilize scarce and expensive office space during a time of growth.  We were able to calculate the savings in facilities costs as a result of the program.  It turned out to be millions of dollars. In another company we developed job performance measures and compared these with non-telecommuting employees (the telecommuters did just as well or better), we conducted satisfaction surveys of managers and telecommuters to see how well the arrangements worked out in practice, and we conducted focus groups with participants to identify areas where we could make the program better and the telecommuters even more productive. We measured job satisfaction and employee turnover.   All of these measures helped us monitor the effectiveness of the program as well as find ways to continuously improve.

Keep remote employees engaged.– Finally, find clever ways to keep remote workers engaged. In one company whenever a remote worker participated in a meeting via teleconference, we placed a placard with the employees’ name on it next to the phone to remind people that the person was “there.”  We developed signs to place on the office door or on the desk in the employee’s cubicle that said something like “Telecommuting today.  Call me at XXXX or e-mail me” so that people knew that the person was working and available. Not out sick or on vacation. Find ways to make sure that you don’t forget the folks who are not physically there.

Telecommuting isn’t for everyone and not every business is suited for telecommuting.  There can be huge advantages for both employers and employees however provided the program is well structured and managed.  Good planning up front can lead to successful and productive remote workers today and save a lot of problems later on.