IT workers to management: NOW can we telecommute?

IT helps others to work remotely but rarely gets to join in. Is that fair?

Crumbling infrastructure, increased traffic congestion, urban sprawl that extends to the hinterlands, more frequent superstorms bringing sustained damage -- more than ever, getting from home to work can be a dicey proposition.

This could well be telework's finest hour. According to the Telework Research Network, the number of teleworkers jumped 57 percent between 2005 and 2012, from 1.8 million to 3.1 million.

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So are IT employees at last being allowed to join in? The answer, according to a range of telecommuting consultants and IT executives, is "it depends."

In the earliest days of telecommuting, the gating factor for all workers was technology: You could take a floppy disk home and work on a document, but not much else. Those barriers have long since fallen, telecommuting consultants and IT executives confirm. With the ubiquity of broadband networking, VPNs, Skype, Web-ready cameras, videoconferencing and the explosion in ownership of personal mobile devices, most technological barriers to telework have long since fallen for many workers.

Similarly, the nature of both work in general and IT specifically has changed as well. In a world where corporations are functioning with fewer people wearing more hats, whose job is tied to one office or one location anymore? In a globalized world, whose colleagues sit close by? In a world of cloud and co-location, of offshore and nearshore developers, what's "remote"?

In short, sweeping technological and cultural change has finally shifted the attitude toward working remotely, says Gil Gordon, a consultant, now retired, who has followed the telework movement for decades. "There is [now] a basic understanding that people can work together without being physically together," he says. "Offices will never become extinct, but the notion of mobility is entrenched."

For IT specifically, globalization, outsourcing and the increased use of co-location facilities has made the idea of a dispersed workforce seem reasonable rather than radical, Gordon says.

The remaining barriers to telecommuting for IT workers are more managerial and procedural than technical, agrees David Annis, CIO of Garvin Promotion Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has seen IT telecommuting succeed and seen it fail. It's his opinion -- shared by other IT leaders and rank-and-file tech workers -- that those barriers are by no means impossible to overcome.

In at least some IT departments, barriers need to fall fast, because workers with in-demand tech skills have become more demanding. "Some companies that have never offered telecommuting before for their IT staffs are now considering it," says John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology, an IT executive search firm. The reason is simple: IT applicants are rejecting jobs that don't offer telework as an option. (Indeed, in Computerworld's annual Salary Surveys, telecommuting consistently ranks in the top 5 job priorities for respondents.)

Which techies get to telecommute?

Does that mean CIOs can simply fling open the doors to the enterprise and set their people free? Not exactly, experts caution.

In deciding who can and can't work remotely, sources agree that it depends on the employee's level of hands-on work and collaboration. "Supervisory roles, roles that involve hardware management, or strategy and business planning -- those people need to be close to the action," says RHT's Reed. "Roles that require writing code and doing phone-based technical support are easier to do remotely."

That means anyone dealing with deskside support -- never. Business analysts and project managers charged with collaborating with users -- rarely. IT managers -- rarely.

Annis agrees that it's "difficult, but not impossible" for IT managers to work remotely. What's more feasible is telecommuting once a week. "It's important that I'm here. I'm the eyes and ears of development" -- which means it's important for him to interact face-to-face with the business side when necessary. Occasionally, though, he'll steal away from the office to work on a specific project.

In fact, many CIOs who have implemented telework for their IT staff recommend this. "Any work that requires your full concentration but does not require collaboration is better suited to be done off-site," says Niraj Jetly, CIO at EdenredUSA, the U.S. division of a global developer of employee benefits and incentive solutions in Newton, Mass.

"A task that requires four to five hours of concentration can easily take two business days in the office," Jetly observes. "If I have to write an RFP response, and I've already brainstormed with the functionality team and I just need to write it down, it's ideal to do it from home."

That said, there's one group of employees who shouldn't work remotely, regardless of their job responsibilities -- employees whose productivity drops off outside the office. This happens for several reasons, IT executives say.

Sometimes employees lack an isolated workspace at home, and can't escape family members, pets and other distractions. "For some people, the office may be quieter than the house," says Sprint's Campbell.

Other employees lack the discipline to work without physical supervision -- which they're sometimes aware of, though not always. "Some employees will self-select out of telework," says Nancy Crouch, deputy CIO at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "They'll admit they're not disciplined."

Other times, the discovery process is more cumbersome. Annis revoked the telecommuting privileges of a couple of employees who didn't perform when they were first given such privileges, then ended up terminating those employees later when they couldn't perform internally either. "Telecommuting wasn't the issue," says Annis. "It was their work ethic."

Telework as a corporate problem-solver

At times, telework isn't just a perk for deserving employees but a problem-solver for the organization.

For example, Sprint, in Overland Park, Kan., uses telecommuting to address overcrowding. More than 30 percent of the 2,500 IT staff members work from home on any given day, says senior VP of IT Peter Campbell; up to 70 percent either work from home either permanently or periodically. That includes everyone from hourly to salaried workers.

"We were crowded," Campbell reports. "With the confluence in interest in working remotely, improvements in unified communications technology and the reality of our physical space constraints, we set up "hoteling" facilities in our headquarters with whiteboards and bean bags." Shared, unassigned hoteling space is a flexible, cost-effect alternative to maintaining dedicated workspaces for employees who aren't in the office every day.

"It's had a tremendous impact on our real estate requirements in IT, and we've gained significant savings." Campbell doesn't have a figure solely for IT, but company-wide, he estimates $30 million in real-estate savings overall.

Other times, a remote workforce is the only workforce a company can attract. Annis knows this situation all too well from his experience as senior VP of IT at his previous employer, Universal Technical Institute (UTI). It used Progress Software for application development, but developers were not easy to find. "We couldn't convince enough of those developers to move to Phoenix," he says. "If we had an open position, and the applicant was in Tampa, it didn't matter."

Eventually, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the developers, project managers and QA staff were remote. UTI flew its remote Progress developers into Phoenix every six to eight weeks in order to foster relationships, which kept everyone connected and collaborative.

Experts give that strategy high marks. Organizationally, it's important to schedule regular confabs for remote employees, they say -- everything from quarterly in-person meetings to a regularly scheduled weekly check-in call between employee and supervisor. Sometimes, as with agile scrums among developers, a daily call works best to assess progress.

All those strategies help reduce the danger of invisibility to remote employees, RHT's Reed says. "If you work remotely all the time, you miss the opportunity to engage, to build camaraderie, to take part in face-to-face meetings. There's a danger to being out of sight and out of mind. You may still have to make yourself available, and make time to be in the office."

How to launch a telework program

Stew Levy, senior consultant for Telework Program Solutions, a Burke, Va.-based consulting firm, recommends a "crawl, walk, run" strategy for telecommuting programs.

In the crawl phase, define policies and guidelines. In the walk phase, deploy a pilot project so that both employees and supervisors get a sense of what telecommuting will look like.

"Then conduct some focus sessions to find out what worked and what didn't," says Levy. "Find out what the supervisors want to see differently, and what the employees want to see changed."

In the run phase, you launch the program, usually with telecommuting allowed one or two days a week.

You should also establish guidelines around communication and responsiveness -- do you expect telecommuters to be on an instant messaging system and respond within five minutes? Should they respond to an email within one hour? What's the escalation path from IM to email to texting to calling?

Nancy Crouch, deputy CIO at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., seconds the need for both training and performance-management tools. "We've invested heavily in career development, professional development and performance management. We know who needs to work face-to-face versus who can come back from working at home with three times the usual amount of work completed."

Companies need as well to set policies around hardware, software and connectivity. Are you going to supply corporate laptops that get carried back and forth, or install virtualization software on home computers (and if it's the latter, is it the employee's machine or the corporation's)? Will you subsidize connectivity costs like telephone or Internet? Whatever the policy, it should be determined beforehand and communicated frequently.

Whatever guidelines you set up, take advantage of the technology available, whether it's unified communications systems that show employees' availability or shared calendars. "When people are working at home, you need multi-modal communication, including something visual like WebEx or whiteboarding," says Jetly, who plans to invest in videoconferencing in 2013.

Finally, think about your network infrastructure, especially if you anticipate telecommuting to spike, such as when a majority of employees are home during a snowstorm. Consultant Gordon says, "If 10 percent traditionally log in, how robust is your infrastructure when Hurricane Sandy forces 50 percent to log in?"

Physical considerations aside, the most important element "making it work" comes down to management. "You need to define the success metric," says Jetly. "If you're not clear in your own mind what people are accountable for, and the team doesn't understand how they're measured, telecommuting will give you heartburn."

Frequent contributor Baldwin, a Silicon Valley freelancer, is perpetually remote.

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This story, "IT workers to management: NOW can we telecommute?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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