Telecommuting—Compaq’s Emerging Work Model
One of the most important strategies a company can have today is acquiring and retaining good performers. Perks such as sign-on bonuses, stock options, and higher salaries are attractive to employees but do not focus on longevity. Rather than relying on common industry perks, many companies are looking at alternatives to the dollar sign-alternatives that allow employees to manage their lives, not just their jobs-particularly for employees who are in high-stress, high-turnover positions, such as technical communication.
What then are the alternatives for keeping employees for the long term? Flextime is becoming a popular work model among some companies, but another option is emerging as a new way to work, telecommuting or, more recently, teleworking, and Compaq Computer Corporation is taking the lead.
Compaq has approximately 6,000 telecommuters worldwide. My immediate team, consisting of nine documentation project managers each responsible for a different line of products, has two avid telecommuters. I am one of those individuals and have been a Compaq telecommuter for the past six years. The remainder of my team chooses to work traditional hours, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or adjusts their hours using the flextime schedule, but we’re all available during the core hours 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to share project information or attend staff meetings, project meetings, and one-on-one’s.
During conversations with others, I am often asked two questions about telecommuting: “How does your boss know you’re doing your job?” and “How do you avoid watching TV all day?” Initially, I was stunned by these questions, but after a while, I realized it’s just a matter of mindset. The explanation is that my manager doesn’t question whether I’m doing my job or not. She allows my coworkers and me the opportunity to run our own projects, exercising our own judgment, and only intervenes when we need a higher authority. Additionally, like most technical communicators, I have deadlines that include measurable milestones. My manager understands the effort and time involved to accomplish the deadlines, and any slack in effort on my part would be immediately noticed. As for television, when I’m working at home, I’m often too busy to think about anything but work. Goofing off is not an option.
With the implementation of their telecommuting program in 1994, Compaq realized that people needed tools for life management, not job management. However, just as every shoe fits a different foot, telecommuting is not for everyone and may not fit some management styles or company cultures. In addition, there are advantages and disadvantages to overcome. In this article, I discuss who makes a good candidate for telecommuting and address the benefits and pitfalls. I also include some advice on implementing a telecommuting program.
Identifying Good Candidates
Telecommuters must have certain work habits or traits to be successful and to make their department and, most important, their company successful. Based on my personal experience and from discussions with other telecommuters and managers, here are the top eight character traits of an ideal telecommuter (see the sidebar Most Critical Character Traits):
Aside from this ideal employee profile, the nature of a job (job type) also plays an important role in deciding whether or not an employee should be allowed to telecommute. If constant face-to-face communication is required either because of the nature of the job itself or because of the cultural beliefs of the company, telecommuting is not recommended. For example, during his position as a Compaq documentation manager, Tom Howard had several employees who asked to work from home. When considering individuals for a telecommuting program, Tom often based his decisions on something he referred to as “guerilla tactics,” meaning that if an employee can arrive on campus on Monday morning and gather all the information needed within four hours and then go home and work the rest of the week, then the job itself is an ideal candidate.
Understanding the Advantages
A telecommuting program can benefit both the employee and the company. The following sections discuss the advantages commonly expressed by both parties.
In a traditional office environment, employees have to deal with unsolicited personal conversations, gossip, and office politics. Distractions such as these are minimal for a remote worker. When working from home, telecommuters can accomplish a task in an hour whereas, on site, that same task may take two hours to complete because of the constant interruptions. In addition, telecommuters can easily become so engrossed in their work that they will put in more hours a day than they would if they were on site.
Nonstop work environment.
Most telecommuters feel their work environment is an advantage they have over counterparts who are restricted to working on site: When inclement weather prevents other coworkers from coming to work, telecommuters can continue to work without interruption. Other advantages include:
- Telecommuters can arrange international phone calls or log in for email at any time of the night to accommodate different time zones. This flexibility is particularly convenient for employees who deal with global vendors or translators.
- Telecommuters can more easily manage a short-term illness such as the flu or a cold without exposing their coworkers. They can also periodically check email for urgent issues and still be able to get adequate bed rest.
More personal time.
Because telecommuters save up to three hours a day in commuting time, most of them are able to spend this time at the gym, piano lessons, or tending to other personal items that would otherwise be put off to the weekend or late evenings. For employees with children, telecommuting offers extra time in the day to take care of family obligations.
Jane Lakatos, a Compaq documentation project manager, believes that telecommuting has changed her life: “I not only work full time, but I am the mother of two young boys, and working from home has drastically decreased the amount of stress in my life. After I send everyone off to school, work, and daycare, I am able to get my home back in order before I sit down to my 8- to 10-hour day at work. My evenings are now much more relaxed because I can spend time with my family instead of trying to play catch-up with all the laundry, cooking, and tidying up.”
Personal expense reductions.
Telecommuters enjoy a considerable reduction in daily or monthly expenses such as lunches, gasoline, dry cleaning, and clothing, plus they minimize the wear and tear on their vehicles and usually have lower car insurance rates because of less frequent travel.
Improvement in employee recruitment, morale, and retention.
Recruiting and retaining effective and productive employees is a great advantage to any company. To prove this point, some of the telecommuters I interviewed confessed they would be devastated or might consider resigning if telecommuting was no longer an optional work method.
Increase in employee productivity.
By allowing some employees to work from home, companies experience less down time, fewer lost days, and so on. Employees with sick children can continue to work uninterrupted. In addition, employees who telecommute tend to carry a heavier workload because they have the freedom to work late or odd hours and are not exposed to as many interruptions.
Reduction in real estate expenditures.
Official telecommuters rarely have an office on site. Those who telecommute a few days a week often share an office with another employee, thus saving valuable office space within a department. With a large telecommuting program, a company could also realize a cost savings on parking requirements and utilities.
Compliance with the Clean Air Act.
In cities that experience high ozone levels, such as Houston and Los Angeles, telecommuting programs could reduce the amount of traffic and demonstrate that a company is doing its part to help meet air quality standards. Non-compliance can result in expensive fines for some companies or a reduction in highway funds granted by the federal government.
Awareness of global operations.
Companies with offices worldwide have telecommuters at a global level. These global offices must work together despite their diverse locations and communicate with each other through conference calls, emails, file transfers, and video conferencing. Local telecommuters must work in much the same way, gaining an awareness and appreciation of how their colleagues in global offices must perform every day.
Dealing with the Pitfalls
Unfortunately, working from a virtual office also has a few drawbacks. Most telecommuters struggle with gaining the acceptance and cooperation of both their immediate team and their project teams. Compaq originally initiated its telecommuting program in 1994; however, telecommuting wasn’t fully accepted as a viable work method until the acquisition of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1998. Compaq Houston employees suddenly had to find ways to work effectively with their new remote counterparts in Massachusetts. The methods included purchasing video conferencing equipment and emailing presentations to remote sites prior to meetings. Bonnie Schmidt, a Compaq telecommuter living in Tennessee, recalls, “With the acquisition of DEC, I have seen everyone at Compaq Houston become a lot more open to phone meetings and dial-in numbers. They know how to prepare for virtual meetings a lot better than they did years ago.”
Poor meeting etiquette is also an issue for telecommuters who must call into a meeting. Sometimes the meeting facilitator will forget to call into the main conference number, so you never get connected to the meeting. If you do get connected, there may be several private conversations going on near the microphones, so you can’t hear the facilitator. In addition, meeting attendees often fail to identify themselves before speaking or they may not be sitting near the microphones, so their voices don’t project. The solution? Call the meeting facilitator beforehand and raise these issues. You can also ask an administrator to post a sign outlining proper meeting etiquette in the conference rooms or tape the sign to the conference table in several locations so the attendees are sure to see it.
Lack of camaraderie (isolation) and workaholism are other obstacles telecommuters must frequently deal with. Isolation anxiety can be remedied by setting aside time every week to meet with friends or coworkers over lunch. Taking a short break or walk outdoors can help too. For workaholics, however, it becomes more challenging. Many telecommuters find it difficult to switch between work mode and home mode come quitting time. It’s very challenging to walk out of a virtual office, shut the door, and suddenly pretend you’re at home. It takes a major effort to do so. Sticking to a routine or making plans after hours are both good solutions that force you to stop at a specific time.
Ironically, another pitfall is family and friends. Some family members and friends just don’t understand that even though you’re at home, you’re working. Carey Gregg, a writing consultant at Compaq, has been telecommuting for almost six years, and she has spent a lot of time telling callers, “I’m on a tight deadline now. Can I call you back after work?” hoping to get the point across that she was at work, not at home.
Implementing a Telecommuting Program
First and foremost, managers must decide whether or not their own management style or business model (company culture) can survive with remote workers. If the manager has a tendency to micro-manage or if the company’s culture or nature of the job demands face-to-face communication on a daily basis, then another work model should be considered. Telecommuting will not be successful under these circumstances.
However, if telecommuting seems like a viable work model for the company, then managers should work with their employee relations group to set guidelines for remote workers. A formal contract should be initiated so the manager and employees understand and agree on the conditions and policies for working off site. For example, how many days per week will the employees work off site or on site? Will their work schedule be flexible or should they adhere to core work hours? How will communication, meetings, and documentation reviews be handled-via email, phone, or personal trips to the office? Additionally, daycare should be arranged for small children, equipment needs should be assessed, and any changes in roles and responsibilities should be noted. If an employee is a new hire, he or she will need adequate time to adjust to new coworkers and a new environment prior to being recommended for a telecommuting program. Requiring new hires to work on campus for one to six months prior to working from home is highly recommended. See the sidebar.
Telecommuters handling sensitive data should be required to follow security guidelines. Security measures such as paper shredders, log-on passwords, screensavers (password activated), and anti-virus utilities are usually standard company policy. In addition, a telecommuter’s home office and office equipment should be off limits to family and friends.
Just as with any program, training or coaching should be provided. Employees may not immediately feel comfortable in this new work method, or they may fall too hard for its appeals. Isolation anxiety, feeling invisible, and workaholism are just a few traps telecommuters may find themselves in.
Finally, employees also need to understand what privileges they may be giving up. By going into a home office, they may lose dedicated office space on site, LAN access, or immediate equipment repair services. Equipment may need to be taken in for repair if a trained technician cannot come to their homes. Other expenses such as DSL or ISDN access, long distance phone calls, and mail services may have to be personally incurred and then reimbursed through expense reports.
Compaq realizes that information is tied to data, not to location. As long as employees are able to access and process that information successfully, they are considered fully functional employees whose performance is tied to “ability” rather than “visibility.”
Contrary to recent TV advertisements, telecommuting isn’t about sitting around in your PJs or juggling a child in your arms while you work. It’s about being more productive in your job, having more quality time to spend with your family, and having more personal time to take care of yourself. Telecommuting is a work program that offers Compaq employees an opportunity to manage life. In turn, it provides certain benefits to Compaq such as increased productivity, higher morale and retention rates, better recruitment opportunities, compliance with environmental laws, and fewer real estate expenses.
About the Author