Managing employees who are home alone and working
played a part in keeping the employees of Loofbourrow Inc. safe
on Sept. 11.
Although the investment banking firm had offices on
the 15th floor of Two World Trade Center, not a single employee
was lost. Six of the company's seven employees work from home and
the lone in-office staffer was late because she dropped her daughter
off for her first day of kindergarten.
While telecommuting proved to be a dramatic benefit
for the firm last fall, company president and namesake John Loofbourrow
thinks the system is great on routine work days, too. His only regret:
"I should have done it sooner. It's worked out very well for
If you're considering letting workers telecommute,
don't kid yourself. It takes more than a few PCs and modems. The
small business owner must be a skillful manager and the telecommuters
have to put in a lot of hard work.
You can make the teleworking transition easier and
end up as satisfied as Loofbourrow by following these 10 tips.
1. Educate yourself about telecommuting.
Most experts agree that it's harder to manage a teleworker than
someone sitting in the same office. A big question to answer before
letting employees work from home is can you, the small business
owner, handle it? Can you let go?
Make it easier on yourself by getting some training.
Check telecommuting sites, such as the International
Telework Association & Council or AT&T's
Telework Web, that offer instruction and advice.
Managerial preparation is critical, since the move
to telecommuting can make matters worse. A supervisor who doesn't
do a good job handling in-office reports is likely to have more
difficulty when people start working from home. "Telework amplifies
pre-existing problems and poor management skills," says Michael
Dziak, president of InteleWorks
Inc., a telework consulting firm outside of Atlanta.
A good telemanager, says Dziak, is a person who:
- is good at delegating,
- has earned the trust of employees,
- can work the big picture and not be overly worried
about the details,
- has a good rapport with workers,
- is a born communicator,
- prefers an adult-to-adult relationship, not a paternal
one, with employees and
- has good organizational skills.
2. Choose your telecommuters
Make certain the person wants to telecommute. "Telecommuting
takes a lot of self discipline, so somebody has to want to do it,"
says Minda Zetlin, author of Telecommuting
In addition to having the desire, employees must have
certain telecommuting traits. Key is an ability to work independently
without requiring a lot of face-to-face interaction with managers
and coworkers. Being a good communicator doesn't hurt either, since
the onus usually falls on the teleworker to stay in touch with the
3. Start with existing employees.
The move to telecommuting is likely to be easier if you shift your
current workforce where possible rather than hire new home-based
workers. Ion Interactive, a Web design and consulting firm based
in Boca Raton, Fla., began a telecommuting program out of necessity
when critical employees were planning to relocate. "One got
married, another wanted to move closer to family," explains
Anna Talerico, vice president and co-owner.
What's helped make the telecommuting work is that
Talerico and the company's other managers had worked side-by-side
with the employees before they headed home to work. That face-to-face
experience built trust on both sides. Plus, Talerico had some sense
of these employees' capabilities.
4. Make sure the job fits.
Despite technology's reach, not every job can be done from home.
Make sure the person's responsibilities are suited to telecommuting.
Many white-collar jobs are easily transplanted from the office into
the home. In other situations, a manager and employee need to look
carefully at job requirements.
Zetlin cites the case of a local animal shelter employee,
a situation that turned out to be tailor made for telework. "What
she did was find homes for animals that needed placement,"
Zetlin recalls. "Most of her work was done by the Internet
or by the phone so it was a good telecommuting job."
5. Take telecommuting for a
It's easier to iron out the kinks when working with a couple of
telecommuters in a pilot program. "Use the demonstration program
to identify which departments and workers can gain the most from
telecommuting," advises consultant Dziak.
6. Write down the ground rules.
Sit down with your telecommuters and draw up a document that describes
what the employee will be doing from home, how often he or she will
visit the home office, what the hours of work will be, etc.
Put in as much detail as you can and feel free to
amend it later. "It's much harder to add structure after the
fact," Zetlin says. "It's easier to have too much in the
beginning and then set it aside if it's not useful."
Be sure the arrangement contains an escape clause
for both sides. Sometimes a boss discovers an at-home employee needs
to be brought back in-house. Or an employee may find that he doesn't
like telecommuting and would like to return to working full time
in the office.
7. Consider using part-time
Although there are exceptions, the best telework arrangements are
part time, with the employee dividing time between the regular workplace
and the office at home.
"Working full time at home is fairly rare,"
says Dziak, author of Telecommuting
Success. Employees who spend some time at the office, two
or three days a week or month, generally fare better than full-time
home workers because they have more chances to interact with co-workers
and "stay in the loop," according to Dziak.
8. Take advantage of technology.
Companies that have successful telecommuting programs agree that
technology is crucial. Ion Interactive uses an intranet, a private
Internet, to post projects, who's working on them, status of the
work, etc. Loofbourrow swears by his phone system, which forwards
calls to his company's employees no matter their location.
"Somebody can dial our number in New York [City]
and get instantly connected to our employee in California,"
Loofbourrow says. "They have no idea that their call has been
transferred to California."
9. Keep communication flowing.
Because teleworkers spend time out of sight, it's important that
managers remember them and include them in all planning. Schedule
regular check-in times, whether it's once a day or once a week,
by phone or e-mail. Touching base can ensure that the employee feels
connected and that managers stay on top of what employees are doing.
Loofbourrow Inc. has a monthly meeting when its entire
staff gets together at the corporate headquarters. Zetlin recalls
one telemanager who required people working from home to leave their
phone number and, if available, a picture at their desk at the office.
"It was a reminder to other employees that these people were
working even though they were at home and that it was fine to call
them at home," Zetlin says.
10. Fix problems promptly.
If a telecomuting situation isn't turning out as planned, both you
and your employee will be better off dealing with the problem before
it turns into a big headache. Discuss any complications as soon
as they appear. Don't hesitate to offer pointed feedback on why
telecommuting didn't work in this case.
As these tips demonstrate, managing telecommuters
is possible as long as they aren't simply left home alone. With
appropriate guidelines, input and management, you can ensure your
employees do their best jobs, whether they are working down the
hall or across the country.
Jenny C. McCune is a contributing
editor based in Montana.
-- Posted: Aug. 14, 2002