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Telecommuting

A recent thread brought up the issue of telecommuting. I'd like to rephrase the issue a little bit differently than the (acknowledged) rant it originally appeared in.

What have people's experiences been with telecommuting, from the perspectives of the commuter, someone working with a commuter, or someone managing a commuter?

My own experience was during a period where I worked 2 days a week from home. I think my productivity was fine during that time -- not stellar though. I certainly appreciated the saved commuting time and that translated to better feelings about my employer. However, I did feel a certain disconnect with people who worked on site 5 days a week -- just sort of out-of-touch, although I attended all the meetings that I needed to.

Curious to hear others' experiences (not just opinions).

Jeff Kotula
Monday, August 02, 2004

I've had a similiar arrangement and I agree that there is a certain disconnect with the nine-to-fivers.  I don't think it's insurmountable, however.  I think that if all the developers were in the same boat (working off site), there'd be less of that stigma.

There will always be people who simply don't have the discipline to work on their employer's projects unless they're imprisoned in a cubicle from 9-5 each day, and these sorts of people should be considered not qualified for a development job.  Even if putting them in a chair in an office away from their nintendo gets them to do work, do you really want someone who only works because you've eliminated all other options?  Is that your ideal job candidate?

I found my productivity to be somewhat higher than in the office, if only for lack of interruptions.  If I had stayed home, I may have been too distracted by various personal things like dishes or laundry or mopping or whatever.  I did much of my work from wi-fi enabled coffee houses or the food court at the mall and the like, and did fine.

The only barriers, IMHO, to telecommuting are people with lack of discipline, jealous business folks who are unable to fit their role into a telecommuting framework, and the ensuing politics around both.

muppet
Monday, August 02, 2004

You mean telecommuting actually exists out there?  I thought that it was just the purview of the independent consultants of the world.

Every job I've ever had has been too busy holding meetings to discuss when and where the next meeting should be to even consider telecommuting...

Greg Hurlman
Monday, August 02, 2004

be prepared for your co-workers to resent you!

Sassy
Monday, August 02, 2004

Sassy -

which is EXACTLY the problem.  Petty jealousy and politics.  Who cares about productivity and general good will between employee and employer when Janice the Business Liaison is jealous that she hasn't got your job?

Personally I'd like a 6 figure salary and stock options, but as that's not gonna happen, I'd gladly take telecommuting instead.

muppet
Monday, August 02, 2004

I worked for someone that telecommuted 2 days a week.  He was the number 1 guy under the COO. The setup barely worked in the begining and during the year and a half I was there greatly deteriorated. The problem I ran into was that since he was hard to get into contact with during those two days he was at home, questions and problems that normally went to him, went to me. Also his commute the three other days was about 3 hours+ so he was never on time and thus left even more for me to cover for. This then escalated into them coming to me first even when he was in since I allready had the background information from when he was not in. At the end I was also for the most part in charge of the other staff under him, even the days he was in.

In the end I was working late and on weekends to get my assignments done. Mean while his productivity shot through the roof. The team was allways disconnected and left to the whim of other managers who would exert force on his days at home.

The ability to have to talk with someone only via email, IM or phone really limited our ability to get things done quickly. His not being in the office made things like jotting down ideas and designs impossible to do quickly and easily. The technology provided was not enough to make up for him not being in the office.

Now I work in a place where the programmers are in India. It is unreal the problems we are having and they are all so very simular. Inability to contact the staff in India early in the morning puts more work on us and greatly effects the morale of the whole company as they struggle to get the system debugged. But we have found a solution to that problem, we are bringing the whole project back in house within the next year. When we bring it back I will not be hiring a telecommutter.

Jeff
Monday, August 02, 2004

Jeff -

so in other words you had a poorly disciplined person in a telecommuting position with subpar technology and infrastructure to support such an arrangement in the first place, and you had a hard time.

I don't see anything surprising (or unavoidable) there.

muppet
Monday, August 02, 2004

I just telecommunuted for about a year and didn't really care for it.  Sure I the isolation helps productivity with certain tasks but the communication piece was not as good.  Doing a good job as a developer is much more than just writing lines of good but more of making sure you understand the user's need.

Plus I like the feeling of "going" to work and "going" home.  I find it easier to compartmentalize with a 20-30 min commute/transition in between.  At least were I work everyone has their own office so distractions aren't really an issue.

Bill Rushmore
Monday, August 02, 2004

Muppet, despite your desire for everyone to be as rational, balanced, and non-judgmental as yourself, it just ain't that way.

"out of sight, out of mind"
"where's XXX today?  I need something done!"
"I can't believe xxx gets to sit at home and we have to slave away in the cubes."

etc....

Reality sucks!

Sassy
Monday, August 02, 2004

"so in other words you had a poorly disciplined person in a telecommuting position with subpar technology and infrastructure to support such an arrangement in the first place, and you had a hard time."

No the problem was not the person in the telecommuting position. He was rather well disiplined. The problem seemed to center on the rest of the company not being able to deal with someone who is physically not in the building. They just preferred to deal with me in person rather then him via a phone etc, it was just faster for them, more immediate and thus more painful for me. The culture within the company failed to adapt to his lack of physical presence.

Technology wise, we tried pretty much all of it. Web cams, digital white boards, multiple phone lines into his home, easy to use IM clients on the other managers PC so they could talk to him directly. We pretty much ran out of ideas on how to make him more physically connected.

The setup just did not work. Was it his problem, no, maybe it was the culture of the company?

Jeff
Monday, August 02, 2004

Jeff,

Maybe you need to say "XXX is working today, here's how you reach him", instead of doing the work.  Eventually people would have stopped comming to you for the answer.

Steamrolla
Monday, August 02, 2004

***Muppet, despite your desire for everyone to be as rational, balanced, and non-judgmental as yourself, it just ain't that way.***

exactly my point, Sassy, and you too, Jeff.  My point is that telecommuting doesn't work, not because the mechanism when properly implemented is a flawed one, but because people are assholes.  :)

muppet
Monday, August 02, 2004

steamrolla,

That worked for everyone under my 'level'. The culture of the company was that if the executive asked for it he got it. I would say those exact lines day after day. I would in turn get some variant of "I said this needs to be done, get it done". My boss had meetings with the other managers on how to get in touch with him. It just never worked. We tried damn hard to get it all worked out.

Corporate culture seems to be the real problem at that place. But now fast forward to today and dealing with an utterly remote development staff in a very different time zone and life sucks in pretty much the same way. So maybe in the end it is just human nature to want to be infront of someone you deal with day in and out?

Thinking back to when I worked for a global engineering group the had the same time/remote problems when projects were located in Asia etc. The culture was better adapted to it but there was also a lot of redundancy in people that could answer questions authoritativly. There was pretty much a US team and an on site team and people on both sides could make decisions at any time. Humm I need to think more about what made that group so successful with remote employees.

Jeff
Monday, August 02, 2004

It's not human nature, it's deeply ingrained culture.  They are not the same thing.  You're right that it's a culture problem where you are.  You have to work with like-minded people to get it to work.  Folks whose roles prevent them from working offsite are not likely to be like-minded in this regard, and jealousy breaks the system.  I know many people in my current workplace who would deliberately make a big deal of the difficulties of dealing with telecommuters simply to break the system, because they'd be jealous.

People are petty ass-pickers.  That's just life.

muppet
Monday, August 02, 2004

I'm currently into my third year or so of telecommuting, but it's been an unusual way of getting here!  I was in a position to join a small company a few years ago, with the aim of working from home at least 3 days a week.  The advantage was that it was very small (2 directors/managers & me) and we were all very savvy with IM, email, etc.
  We had a 2nd developer for a while, which caused a few issues but not specifically telcommuting-related, but let him go when the market never really took off for us.  Post that, we all switched to teleworking 100% and closed the physical office.  Prior to that it had been down to the office & staying in a B&B overnight.
  After a while longer, they decided to 'hibernate' the company (It wasn't losing money, but wasn't really making anything after costs). We had sold a couple of systems, so I joined the company that we'd sold them through, to maintain & support them.  Luckily, they're a multi-national with more than one office, so are used to contacting remote  workers, so I'm not a 100% 'foreign' experience for them. 
  One tool that's looking useful that's only recently been available is Skype, as while email & IM handles the techie-to-techie communcations, for communicating with 'sales' & similar, voice is very useful.

  It's still a way to go, though, as it certainly doesn't suit everyone, and you have to take the downsides into account, but for me, with two pre-school daughters, the pros outweigh the cons at present!

Gwyn Evans
Monday, August 02, 2004

Oh yes, the other advantage that I've had has been that the customers have been abroad, so business has always been via remote parties anyway, so my physical location didn't come into it - in fact, it's sometimes been an advantage as I was able to work late/early if required for particular events, with much less hassle than if I had to commute.

Gwyn Evans
Monday, August 02, 2004

<record mode="broken">
You'll have to explain to me, Mr CEO, how come you have to waste 2hrs of every day for every member of your workforce, because they can't work from home 20 miles away, but you're willing to ship entire projects 10,000 miles and twelve time-zones away.
</record>

Philo

Philo
Monday, August 02, 2004

+++muppett+++
exactly my point, Sassy, and you too, Jeff.  My point is that telecommuting doesn't work, not because the mechanism when properly implemented is a flawed one, but because people are assholes.  :)
+++

I have brought this to my boss many times.  Up until a few months ago I was the only developer and was able to accomplish more on a sick day at home than I was in the office with all the noise and distractions. 

Answer from boss...no...because then everyone else would want it.  They are all sales people.  They get miffed when my boss and I would take a half day to research something outside the building.  As if they were the only ones allowed to go on trips.

So, I completely agree with you.  Telecommuting cannot work where petty politics and feelings are concerned.

The Wanderer
Monday, August 02, 2004

I've been Telecommuting for over a decade (with previous company and now this one).

When I joined my current company it was with a telecommuting arrangement up front. That makes a difference because the other employees knew from the beginning what my schedule was: two days at the office.  (Of course those are the two days when all the meetings take place too.)

Our corporate culture supports telecommuting because face-to-face isn't as needed to get things done. Everything is help desk tickets here.  If I start a new phase of the current project, I open a help desk ticket. If someone wants a new feature; has a bug report, whatever, they open a help desk ticket. And I reply by email. My boss can see by IM if I'm in and can "talk" to me anytime.

Analysts, Sales people, Mangaers, etc. are all happy because stuff gets done. Bottom line - that's all most people really care about.

I am fortunate to work at a progressive company which isn't afraid to try new things.

Bill K Ramsey
Monday, August 02, 2004

I was telecommuting for couple of years . Just one day a week . It was great arrangement. Productivity was much higher than in the office. I did not waste my time talking to neighbors , skipped unnessesary meetings. Saved my commute time , which was almost 4 hours.

LI
Monday, August 02, 2004

After 4 years with one firm, I moved to a close-to-full-time telecommuting position (basically it was a "departing slowly" position - my wife found a great job in her field in a city 2 hours away, and as it was much easier for me to find a good job in that new area than for her to do the same in her field in the old area, we made the decision to move and I'd just get a new job. The telecommuting position was offered to keep me in the organization at least during a transition period).

Ultimately we split ways, as was the inevitable outcome - they simply didn't have the organizational understanding or political structure to cope with telecommuting, and I had career aspiritions that wouldn't be fulfilled as some random remote developer.

From this experience I derived a couple of observations:

-Jealousy is a tremendous impediment - everyone imagines that telecommuting means getting up at noon, scratching one's balls, and watching Oprah, and they're sure to "joke on the square" about the same frequently. It's a joke that gets incredibly old. While there are some advantages such as no commute, and a decreased wardrobe budget, ultimately I found telecommuting to be a significantly more stressful position as you can't give the illusion of value through lots of face time and busy work, such that many otherwise useless individuals in an office position do - you have to actually provide value, even through project missteps and mistakes. How many times have we heard the classic "Well if someone can telecommute then we can just outsource that position to India!", as if busy work and face time in and of themselves are of such value beyond the illusion of progress.

-On a team with highly insular, internal individuals who could go weeks without talking in person, perhaps with a token monthly team meeting where no one had anything to say, the moment someone is remote is the moment they just simply, absolutely must talk face to face about every trivial thing, and this will be brought up as a serious barrier again and again. The illiterate and poor typists will insist that everything must be either in person, or at least verbally. Of course the cynic in me would say that this is a technique of the idiots and duplicitous to maintain plausible deniability - it's easier to claim you were simply misunderstood in a one-on-one-meeting or phonecall than in an email.  I'm not saying that telecommuting means being incommunicado, but I did find it interesting how the demand for voice phonecalls and one-on-one meetings went up dramatically over when I was actually sitting, in person, in a cube in the office - when you're in an environment where everyone is looking for the reason to justify the next project slip, expect them to demand what they probably won't get incessantly.

-If you're on a fractious team that's failing to deliver, you'll invariably find yourself imagined as the root of all evils (because you're out of sight and thus an easy target). Politics weigh incredibly heavy on such a position, so if you're a peer on a team, rather than being managed as a separate entity by a superior, you will get politically speared at every chance possible.

The root of all of these points is that with a dysfunctional team a telecommuting agreement is absolute suicide. I went into this agreement knowing that was the case, expecting to finish a couple of projects and complete some knowledge transfers and move on, so it was mostly perceived from a position of humorous observation, but I'd forewarn anyone planning on pursuing such an arrangement indefinitely.

Dennis Forbes
Monday, August 02, 2004

which comes full circle to what I said hours ago.  Telecommuting isn't broken, people are.  :)

muppet
Monday, August 02, 2004

"Well if someone can telecommute then we can just outsource that position to India!"

The irony is that letting everybody telecommute probably would save MORE than outsourcing to India.

Get rid of the 100,000 square foot office building and reduce it to 25K square feet consisting primarily of generic cubicles and meeting rooms where people can meet face to face once or twice a week as necessary.  Give everybody a webcam and broadband access at home with videoconferencing software (at a total cost of <$1000/year).

Demand a set of core hours that people should be available by phone or webcam, and give reprimands to those who repeatedly do not answer their phone or respond quickly to voicemail when at home. If you're actually working at home there is no excuse for not answering the phone or returning voicemail within 15 minutes - you're not going to be in a meeting room for an hour or discussing anything at someone else's desk.

Everybody is in the same time zone and can meet face to face a number of times a month, which offshore cannot do.  People would also accept less pay to telecommute.

Add it all up, and a well-organized telecommuting policy could bring big savings for the company and improve morale.  But the isolated telecommuting cases tend to be subject to abuse by employees who let their kids and other distractions get in the way, employers don't provide support such as videconferencing and remote whiteboarding software, and there isn't enough (if any) reduction in office real estate when just one or two people do it.

T. Norman
Wednesday, August 04, 2004

I have been telecommuting with the same company for about fourteen years now (with a gap of a year when we lived close to a branch office). My wife was offerred a job at a university a fair distance from the company, so I told my boss that I would be resigning in the autumn, and she suggested that I worked from home - broadly speaking I have been doing so ever since.

There are some advantages and some disadvantages to this. There are restrictions on the kinds of role I can perform, and the particular projects I can be involved in. However, since I am telecommuting to make my personal life easier, it is up to me to do as much as possible to make it work.

Tim

Tim Sharrock
Wednesday, August 04, 2004

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