Taming a telecommuting team

by Jean Hollis Weber

Proceedings 43rd Annual Conference, Society for Technical Communication, 1996, pp. 63-64. Reprinted in Keyword 6 (2), September 1996, pp. 9-10.

"Telecommuting" includes situations where members of a group (department, team, other) are working in different locations, communicating with each other and with clients by phone, fax, and e-mail. The team may be dispersed through an urban area, nationally, or internationally. Telecommuting has advantages and disadvantages over the traditional centralized working group and presents new challenges to management and staff. As a team leader of telecommuting technical writers on software development projects, I have dealt with many of these issues. In this discussion I cover some of the advantages and disadvantages and some principles and rules of successful telecommuting teams.

The media tell us that "telecommuting" is the way many people will soon be working – instead of all members of a group (department, team, other) travelling to one location for work, we’ll be working at home (or travelling between locations as needed) at least part of the time and communicating with our co-workers and clients by phone, fax, and e-mail. Telecommuting teams may be dispersed through an urban area, nationally, or even internationally.

Many people (particularly salespeople, freelancers, and consultants) already telecommute, but it doesn’t seem to be widespread in technical writing groups. This is partly due to resistance from management and workers, who have limited or no experience working in dispersed groups, and who do not understand the advantages and disadvantages of this way of working.

In this discussion, I cover some of my own experiences as a team leader of telecommuting technical writers on software development projects, where I had to deal with both management and staff issues, and some principles and rules that I have developed from my experiences.

Some of the issues to be covered in the discussion are listed here. Thanks go to Allyson Stevens of ISSC Australia Limited, who contributed many of the ideas in this list.

Advantages

  • Happy (and less stressed) workers are more likely to be productive workers.
  • Working at home can increase productivity and improve quality (fewer interruptions can lead to better results, fewer errors, faster work).
  • There is a possible real estate advantage (desk sharing), as with part-time staff.
  • Less commuting contributes to a company’s reputation for environmental awareness.

Disadvantages

  • There is much opportunity for misunderstanding and resentment, especially while the idea is new and many people have little or no experience with this way of working. This can adversely affect team morale and lead to gossip about what people are doing and whether they are doing their share of the work.
  • Managers may feel they have lost control of the team, or co-workers may feel they don’t know what others are doing, if telecommuters don’t maintain regular contact with them.
  • Many people expect others (particularly team leaders and managers) to be available-they see this as an important part of the job. An important part of teamwork is sharing expertise and mentoring; if people aren’t present there is little opportunity to contribute in this way.
  • Telecommuters are cut off from a lot of office gossip, which may lead to being out of touch with important (and often unofficial) things that are going on in the company or the project.

Principles

  • Everyone needs to get used to a new way of working. The concept of the "team" is changing, but not everyone has the same concept. Teams need to explicitly define what their working relationship is.
  • Members of a team need explicit job goals or statement of work expected, detailed on a weekly basis (employees who work in the office need this too).
  • A team of people with common goals and values can work anywhere.
  • Working at home does not necessarily mean a person is less available to other people than if they were "in the office", because a person "in the office" can be in meetings or otherwise unavailable during the day.
  • Some people may not be able to work at home because their jobs genuinely cannot be done remotely (for example, hardware support).
  • No one is indispensable; no one is always available (illness, holidays, meetings).
  • Many meetings can be done over the telephone (conference call) or with some people present and others on the phone. We do this all the time with overseas contacts.
  • Some people might need to be "on call" to come in on a planned day at home, but these should be for genuine emergencies not just because someone decided to call a meeting at short notice.
  • Interrupting people at your own convenience, except in genuine emergencies, detracts from their efficiency. Many of us need to change our habits, "batch" our questions, plan ahead better, schedule meetings with each other, and so on, whether we work in the office or at home. Many personal contacts (including on the telephone) could be done by e-mail.
  • Checkpoints and deadlines become even more important when we are not all in the same location.
  • Keeping in contact with team members is vital-your co-workers need to know what you are doing and that you are keeping up with your share of the work.

Rules

  • Working at home must contribute to productivity or be neutral.
  • At least 1 or 2 members of a team (depending on team size) must be in the office each day.
  • All working at home plans must be okayed by your team leader.
  • You must have at home whatever equipment is needed to do your job. If the company won’t provide it, you need to. (When considering your costs for equipment, weigh them up against your travel costs. How much do you save by not commuting?)
  • You must keep people informed of where you are, how you can be contacted (for example, a telephone number) and any hours during the normal working day when you will not be available.
  • If you keep odd hours (either by personal preference or because your job requires it: you could need to make late-night telephone calls to colleagues on another continent, for example), be sure your co-workers understand why you aren’t always available during "office hours".
  • Schedule meetings on specific days, as far in advance as possible, so all who need to attend can either be there or make arrangements for telephone contact. Other people can then plan their days at home around these requirements.
  • The latest versions of all documents you are working on (including source files) must be available where other people can get to them in case of illness, accident, or other emergency (this applies even when you are working "in the office" and is particularly important near deadlines).
  • Do not hassle people at home, by calling them many times a day. Although they need to be available, try to batch your questions so you make 1 or 2 calls a day rather than many. This is how you should do it in the office as well.
  • Do not expect people to be able to come in to the office at short notice, because it may not be an option (one reason for working at home is not having a car available on a particular day).

Jean Weber has over 20 years of experience in scientific and technical editing and writing for a variety of government and private organizations. She has a Master of Science degree from the University of Maryland and has lectured in professional writing and editing at the University of Technology, Sydney and the University of Western Sydney. Her recent project management experience has been with ISSC Australia Limited.


Last updated 28 December 1998

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