Telecommuting—The Unpopular View
“There seems to be a growing perception that technical writers and telecommuting go hand in hand. Who is spreading this rumor?” says Betsy Pfister on Betsy’s Technical Writing Site.1
It must be the technical writers. As a publications manager, I question whether technical writing and telecommuting are such a good match. In California’s Silicon Valley, where there are more jobs than there are qualified job seekers, I often have no choice but to permit telecommuting despite my objections.
I know my views on this subject are unpopular, at least among the growing number of technical communicators who believe passionately in telecommuting. A recent poll on the TECHWR-L Web site2 found of 133 technical communicators, nearly half of the respondents believed telecommuting to be more productive than working on site.
One argument cited often is that a telecommuter can finish his or her “project” in less time than it takes in the office, where telephones, chatty coworkers, meetings, and other everyday annoyances disturb and distract.
Completing project work alone is not what a fast-growing company needs and is only one facet of a technical communicator’s role. Successful employees, telecommuters or on-site employees, must become a successful part not only of their product and information-development teams but also of the organization as a whole.
The Dynamics of a Working Team
I manage an eight-person group at the headquarters office of VeriSign, a fast-paced, highly competitive Internet company. VeriSign is growing like crazy, even as other Silicon Valley companies are laying off employees. Two years ago we had two full-time technical writers; now we have six, and it’s nowhere near enough. We depend on contractors to fill in the gaps as we work on documentation for more than six product lines. My document plan has 160 titles and projects on it, some in multiple revisions. We sometimes have only a week’s time to write a manual for a new product or service.
At VeriSign, and other high-tech companies I’ve worked for, we don’t work in a linear fashion on documents. Each member of the documentation team is usually multitasking, juggling eight or ten projects at once in various stages of completion. We are ready at any moment to meet with a developer, to attend a meeting, to talk to a customer or affiliate partner if necessary, or to plan a new project.
The members of the documentation group are highly visible and clearly part of the development team. As shareholders in the company, we are all very interested in how our work affects the bottom line. Documentation is an important part of the product, and we are very aware of the contribution we make.
From My (Less than Satisfied) Point of View
I have worked with writers who telecommute full-time or more than a third of their working hours. My experiences with both contractors and full-timer telecommuters have turned me off to telecommuting, for different reasons.
Contractors are rarely available to learn the product. Full-timers have difficulty being team players and are rarely involved in the full range of work that occurs as part of our business. Neither contractors nor full-timers get the same volume of work done as on-site workers, and they frequently miss deadlines. In my 11 years of managing documentation teams and projects, the telecommuters are the only ones who have repeatedly ignored, or been unaware of, deadlines.
My dissatisfaction with telecommuting has nothing to do with thinking the telecommuter is goofing off at home. Most employees who have telecommuted at different companies over the years have indeed been honest in the amount of work they’ve done. The difficulties arise when they are not on site. They cannot perform the fundamental tasks of a technical writer’s job strictly off site: gathering information, learning the product, attending meetings and other daily activities, and doing the mundane jobs as well as the interesting ones.
Although I would love to have a contractor on site, ready and able to work on whatever comes up, I’ve learned long ago that I cannot hire contractors to work on site. Nearly all senior-level contractors expect to work at home, and I’ve come to accept that requirement of employment.
We hire senior-level contractors because inexperienced technical writers would have difficulty completing the projects off site. We produce a number of complex products and services that require some serious ramp-up time. I tell the prospective contractors that I need a writer who is willing and able to write about complex technology for a technical audience and who is able to self-manage. Part of the reason I’m hiring a contractor is because I have no time to do this work myself, so I want someone who can take over a project the same way one of my senior writers would.
I will usually give the contractor a specific assignment. These are truly “projects” in that they have a distinct beginning and end. To get them started, I give contractors the source material, a computer and desk space at our office so they can learn the software, and names and contact information for all the subject-matter experts. I verify that they are willing to do what’s necessary to learn the product, and that they will organize draft distribution and reviews.
After that initial meeting, almost all communication, either with the SMEs or me, ends.
At least half a dozen telecommuting contractors in the past couple of years have not called their SMEs or even come on site unless urged strongly to do so. The desk space I allot remains empty during the length of the project. They seem to expect me to provide files that they’ll massage. I do not pay top dollar to have someone string files together; I want them to write documents.
They cannot learn how a product works when they will not communicate with developers or use the software. This has been evidenced in their work. I find a huge number of errors, and I sometimes have to rewrite everything because there’s no time to have them rewrite the information. Sometimes the draft I receive is nothing more than pre-existing material strung together and formatted but neither updated nor edited.
So many contractors consistently ignored deadlines that I started to be grateful for the ones that met deadlines, even if the deliverable was not at all what I wanted or asked for. Many swore they were self-starters who managed themselves, yet they did not call any of the developers or attend any meetings. They expected material to be handed to them, correct and ready to format.
A few years ago teamwork was the buzzword du jour. The successful team, we were told, is more than a sum of its parts.
Many telecommuters are not a part of our team. By behaving as if they are consultants or contractors, they set themselves apart not only from our department but also from the entire company. I think that if a technical writer expects to be considered an equal member of the team, he or she should behave in a similar way to other members of the team or at least accept that there will be some perceived differences. Look around your workplace. Are large numbers of software developers telecommuting? Are the project managers or product owners telecommuting? If they are on site all the time and you aren’t, they won’t view you as doing the same job they are doing. As a member of the team, you are not necessarily there to do isolated projects but rather to do work that is in the best interest of the company.
Telecommuters aren’t available to work on the full range of tasks the other writers have to do. Because they spend large amounts of time off site, they often expect to work on discrete projects. If an emergency comes up that requires a fast turnaround, I call over the wall to the people physically in the department, not to the telecommuter who doesn’t always answer his phone when I call. Telecommuters aren’t obligated to do the “dirty work” that those in the office must take care of, and it’s unfair to those who are in the office.
Teamwork does occur among the writers who work in the office. In a deadline crunch, two of them might work simultaneously on a document. It’s the only way we can maintain our tremendous pace. Quality isn’t always the top priority in such a small department. Sometimes speed is most important to completing projects at all. The telecommuter, working at home on a single project, will use extra time to improve the quality of the document, when it would be in the best interest of the department to help complete another information product that is missing deadlines.
It bears repeating: many telecommuters forget, or feel exempt from, meetings and appointments and will not even take part in a phone conference. Perhaps working at home makes them unaware of the time.
Telecommuters cause an increase in the workload of those who stay on site
My biggest complaint in the case of both contract and full-time telecommuters is that telecommuters cause me more work rather than alleviating the workload.
I was recently fortunate enough to hire a very good contractor from a company that is in another state. As good as this contractor is, there are problems that occur just by virtue of him being a telecommuter. He communicates by email, to submit drafts or to ask for information. Where a writer would normally look at the software or walk into a developer’s cube and ask a question or two and then write up the information, he has to email his questions to developers, ask them to write the information he needs, continue a correspondence to fill in the details, and then transfer it to his document file. On a recent project with an upcoming deadline, four developers came to me to complain either that they were being asked to write pieces of the customer documentation (something they don’t normally do) or that they had to comment on drafts via email, which they found to be a terribly time-consuming task.
The remoteness of this contractor also means that one of the writers in my group must act as a liaison, handling draft comments, organizing tabletop reviews, and entering information that comes up during conversation. I estimate that the lead writer and I each spend approximately three hours a week doing extra work. If the telecommuter were on site during his two-week learning period, it would take half the time.
This is a good contractor. You can imagine how much time I spend on bad ones. Sometimes I devote almost as many hours to their projects as they do.
My workload also increases when a full-timer is telecommuting. I have to deal with more email and more telephone calls. I have to plan work that can accommodate the telecommuter rather than the other way around. I sometimes wait days to get something done by a telecommuter that would be done in hours by an on-site worker. I have to plan meetings and events that fit their schedules, at times that aren’t always convenient to the people who are here. Although the telecommuters are scheduled to be in the office one or two days a week, they change their schedules without warning, which leaves me to constantly re-schedule meetings.
Suggestions for Improvement
I can grow to accept telecommuting. After all, our company has remote offices, and the people who work there are certainly fully involved in daily work life at VeriSign. If we didn’t have such a hectic schedule or overburdened staff, I could even be more sanguine about the relatively long time it takes for contractors to complete a project. I believe that a telecommuter who wants to be promoted and fully participate in work life must adjust his or her work style accordingly, by adhering to the following guidelines:
- Be more proactive than you’ve ever been at any time in your work life. Call people, conference into meetings by phone, go on site whenever it is even remotely necessary, anticipate the needs and problems before they occur, and volunteer your efforts to solve them. Attend meetings in person as often as possible. Keep core hours so your work schedule overlaps with your manager’s and team members’ schedules.
- Communicate frequently with your manager. Call in regularly; don’t wait for him or her to call you. Stay in frequent touch via email. Set up a regular schedule of when you will be in the office, and stick to that schedule.
- Be a team player. Make sure that you are as aware of the workload as is any other member of the team. Figure out a way that you can participate in all the work, not just the long-term projects.
- And last of all, be receptive to face-to-face meetings. After all, telecommuting is not a right and can be revoked at any time. It’s still a privilege, and your behavior will determine whether future eager telecommuters will be able to enjoy the privilege as well.
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