Telecommuting is on the rise. Each year the share of the U.S. labor force that works offsite grows. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports that 2.6% of American workers telecommute, when limiting the definition of this status to full-time employees at private, nonprofit or government organizations who work at least half time at home. Broader definitions place the percentage much higher—perhaps as high as 30%.
Surprisingly, telecommuting is not limited to a narrow demographic, such as parents with young children. People of all ages, with and without children or aging parents, both men and women, work at home. The average telecommuter is 49 years old and a college graduate, with an average annual income of $58,000.
The general principles of employee management apply to telecommuting: spell out objectives, maintain channels of communication, treat workers as people, etc. However, these principles are even more important for offsite workers because the relationship can easily become impersonal. Relationship problems are exacerbated when there is no face-to-face contact.
It boils down to trust. Trust is fundamental to the effective management of offsite employees. If workers require micromanagement—or if that is your preferred supervisory style—telecommuting arrangements will not be successful.
Some employers experiment with tracking every keystroke and even GPS tracking of workers. This can generate worker dissatisfaction and lead to excessive turnover. However, relationships between management and employees need not be confrontational.
1. Establish expectations, both short-term and long-term.
Look at the results, not the process. Measure deliverables, not activities or expenditures of time.
2. Spell out terms of service.
Specify time parameters. What is the work schedule? Do employees work the hours they please or are they on set schedules? When do you phone each other? When are staff meetings? When are emails answered? Don’t expect round-the-clock access by phone and email.
3. Assure high priority to answering employees’ questions.
In-office workers can pop into your office or stop you in the hallway. But without a concerted effort to respond to them quickly, offsite workers will become demoralized, lose momentum in their assignments, and may even be unable to meet deadlines. They may also make more mistakes, including the expensive kind.
4. Do not allow “out of sight, out of mind” to take place.
Surveys show that one of the greatest frustrations for off-site employees is missing out on face time and therefore missing out on advancement. Give telecommuters career ladders with opportunities for promotion.
5. Respect individuals’ preferences, when possible, on how to collaborate.
Which styles of communication are preferred? Phone, texting, email, Facebook group, etc.? Recognize that preferences may differ by age.
6. Set up a communications schedule and stick to it.
If you cancel the Monday AM meeting repeatedly, communications will dwindle to nothing. It’s easy to let planned meetings and such slip by to meet high-pressure deadlines, but eventually employees come to expect cancellations.
7. Pay attention when you are on group meetings via teleseminar or Skype.
Turn off your smartphone and don’t allow Facebook to tempt you. Expect the same courtesies from others.
8. Hold in-person meetings as often as practical.
If employees are dispersed across the country or even globally, this may be rare. If they all reside in the metropolitan area, scheduling may be far simpler. Don’t limit in-person to work; include telecommuters in the fun, such as holiday parties, if possible.
9. Explore technology, collaborative task management and other tools.
Skype, shared scheduling, project management and document software can make a world of difference in facilitating teamwork.
10. Give offsite employees technology and other resources that are equal to in-house.
No one wants a poky printer or bulky hand-me-down computers.
11. Hire the right people who can work independently and stay motivated even when they are not under observation.
Some people thrive in offsite employment while others detest it. Consider the use of employee behavioral assessment tools to give managers critical insights into personnel motivations, preferences, and flexibility. Match employee work styles with work settings as much as possible.
The practice of telecommuting is growing. By selecting employees who favor telecommuting and instituting work practices that foster high performance, companies can claim the edge in both work production and financial savings.