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Telecommuting’s Time has Come!

Dear Reader,

[DISCLAIMER: I work at one of the greatest companies in the tech industry. They let me telecommute. They get it…most of the time. They rock.]

The Problem

Because I telecommute and of late travel a lot, I don’t often fill up my car with gas. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I fill my little Miata up with gas once a month. SO you can imagine my surprise when I went to the pumps recently and discovered how much gas costs these day! (I know, old news) This got me to thinking. Usually, companies hand out telecommuting privileges to employees as a perk. “You can work from home one day a week.”, crap like that. These days though, with gas prices high, pollution worries (no I’m not a global warming alarmist but I think we should take care of the Earth when we can) and the price that people are beginning to put on their time, I think companies should have to justify to the employee when they want them to work from the office instead of home.

The value of time

1 hour a day spent sitting alone, behind the wheel of a car, even listing to great podcasts, is still 1 hour a day of your life wasted. All because your employer either doesn’t trust you to do your work or can’t figure out how to do his work without you standing next to him. Quality of life is important to me and I’m sure it’s important to a lot of you. I know many people who would rather cut out their commute and spend that time with their family or just sleeping later.

The Solution

The solution I’m proposing should be obvious by now. The technology exists to allow almost all office workers to work remotely. Before they were purchased by Sun, MySQL had 70% of it’s workforce distributed around the world, working at their own locations. Telecommuting is no longer a perk to be negotiated for; it should be common sense. It’s not a right but it is a clue for smart workers looking to switch jobs. Companies that do not immediately tout their telecommute policy are companies mired in the 70’s and 80’s.

I’ve said it before and I know I will say it again, if a manager doesn’t feel that they can get their job done with a distributed team, that is a failing of the manager. If you are in charge of a manager who won’t let employees telecommute because they feel they will lose control, fire the manager, get someone in who can actually do the job.

Conversely, if you have employees that you can’t trust to telecommute, fire them now. If you can’t trust them to work on their own then having them in a cube near you won’t solve the problem.

All of this was sparked because someone I know was pinged today about a job he wanted but had been previously turned down for. Now that he’s telecommuting, he’s really torn because while he still wants the job, he does not want to give up an hour a day of his time just to have it. So I’m calling on all employers. If you manage office bound staff, take some serious time and consider, do you really need your employees in the office each and every day? Can they do their jobs using the technologies available without having to be in the office? Will it improve morale if you offer them a perk that costs you nothing and gives them freedom? Take a step in the right direction, setup a telecommuting plan and let people discover for themselves if they can do the job.

Until next time,
(l)(k)(bunny)
=C=

24 thoughts on “Telecommuting’s Time has Come!

  1. We’re moving more and more to telecommuting, but transitioning from office based teams to telecommuting teams isn’t always easy.

    Can you recommend some good resources? Instead of ‘firing the manager’ as you suggest, I would rather teach them how to do it.

    Brainstorming a solution on a whiteboard still beats doing the same over skype, and personal contact is still valuable.

    But I agree; those are things we just have to deal with in a distributed organization.

  2. @Ivo

    Hi!

    First, the ‘fire the manager’ was a direct response to a situation I am aware of. A team that I built a while back instituted a limited telecommuting policy. They would allow employees to telecommute one day a week. A friend of mine who still works there was taking advantage of this policy until they recently pulled it because the manager didn’t feel that he/she could ‘control’ the employees unless they were all in the same room together. Fire that manager now!

    Resources:
    As far as resources for managers to learn how, your best bet is to find someone, even a consultant, who can come in, help you design the telecommute policy and can ease your managers through the transition. (Side Note: This is a project I would LOVE to work on. If you do decide to go the consulting route, you know where to find me.) :) My advice here is simple, start small. Take your “Special Forces” and let them pave the way. Make sure that everybody knows the policy and how they can become eligible. Set milestones for the project and a review date (3 months from the start) to make sure that everybody has everything they need. CLEAR, OPEN, and CONSISTANT LINES OF COMMUNICATION ARE THE KEY TO A SUCCESSFUL TELECOMMUNITING POLICY. The list of tools below is almost all related to communications. Regularly scheduled team communications are very important to making people feel that they are not isolated.

    As far as technical resources, I’m sure you know all of these but I’ll list them here for others interested. (I just did a Sixty Second Tech podcast on this that will be released some time next month)

    Skype
    Skype REALLY makes telecommuting feasible. Pop the extra ~$50/year and get Skype Pro, it’s worth it.

    IM
    Everybody HAS to have IM. You get bonus points if everybody is on the same system but with programs like Trillian and pidgn these days, that’s not nearly the issue it used to be.

    IRC
    If you’ve got a spare Linux server behind your firewall, do yourself a favor and throw up an IRC server on it. This is something I do for ever team I have that has remote workers. (I’ve had teams with remote workers since ’99) Don’t put it outside of the firewall but inside your firewall where you can control it, it’s awesome. One team I had, you weren’t actually at work till you signed into IRC. I relaxed that policy after a while because everybody got into the swing of telecommuting but this can be a great way to transition into a telecommuting policy.

    SSH
    You are going to have to have an SSH server inside the firewall. Set it up properly with keys instead of passwords and then lock it down. This is your remote workers gateway into the system. An alternative to this is setting up a Cisco VPN if you’ve got money to spare but I’ve found, especially with LAMP developers that most of them already have an ssh client and know how to construct tunnels and it solves 80% of the issues they will have. Setting up your ssh server properly will allow secure access to resources like mail, SQL, svn, etc.

    Source Code Repository
    Ok, this one is not just for remote teams but it’s really important to remote teams. Make sure you have a Source Code Repository and that everybody can access it. Make sure everything (project docs, specs, every project document) is checked into the repository.

    So that’s a bit more detail. If I didn’t answer your question or if you need more info, ask again.

    Thanks for writing, see you next month!

    =C=

  3. I would like to hear your thoughts on employees that are at transitory stages in their career and how that is impacted by their telecommuting. For example when you have a fresh out of school programmer join the team. When it is time for that senior developer to start working as a tech lead or architect.

    I have found that a lot of these stages are coupled with intense periods of rapid question and answer sessions with their mentors. Do you think that can survive in a telecommuting company?

  4. Right on bro!
    I worked for a company for 3 years that let me telecommute from another state. Eventually they got bought out and my job ended so now I have to find a new job. I can’t stand the thought of being forced to get back on the freeway and wast 1-2 hours of my life every day. I’ve searched high and low to find a job that would let me telecommute, but no luck. I’m even finding it difficult to find a job close to home so I could ride my bike to work.
    When will companies wake up and realize it benefits everyone when employees telecommute?

  5. @Jeff,

    Hi and thanks for writing!

    The stage of an employee’s career, in my mind, does not dictate whether they can or cannot telecommute. I am a very hands off manager. I “wind them up and turn them lose” with the instructions of “finish on time or come to me when you hit a wall”. As a result, I hire for the ability to work independently. When I am hiring PHP developers, I look for sample code and proof that they don’t need me standing over their shoulder to get the job done. I don’t like hand-holding employees, of any level.

    That having been said, new developers do need guidance and mentoring, they need help understanding and adhering to coding standards, they need help understanding and applying patterns, they need to know that you are not going to hang them out to dry if they fail. Telecommute or not, they need help. If you have built out your infrastructure with communications tools as I outlined above, there is no reason why you can’t give that developer the help he or she needs.

    Once you have the infrastructure setup and the policies in place, the rest is just management style. For instance, in a traditional team, if I bring on a junior level programmer, I always assign them a senior level programmer as their mentor. This is the person they can trust will help and guide them, not only in getting to know the company but in their professional development.

    On my teams, there are only 3 levels, junior, mid-level and senior; the difference between mid and senior is the ability to mentor. (Let that sink in) Mid-level programmer should be able to perform technically at the same level as seniors. Seniors also have the maturity and experience to mentor a junior.

    This is all (in my mind) just good management and has little to do with telecommuting itself. However, remote workers can feel isolated so your seniors need to know to make regular contact with their assigned juniors and make sure you head off any problems before they happen.

    Also, no matter what level your new hire is, assign everyone a ‘buddy’ for their first 90 days. Someone who has been with the company long enough to know the ins and outs. This is especially important with telecommuters. I would have never made it through my first 6 months at Zend had it not been for two wonderful co-workers, Te and Jen. Te and Jen, even though they were contractors, were insiders and know where to go to cut through the bull and red-tape to get things done. They not only helped me but they showed me their secret back-doors so I could do this too. Now, I show new people at Zend how to get around. :)

  6. @ceoj

    I don’t know what industry you are in but if you are LAMP related at all take a look at Sun/MySQL. They guys flat out GET IT. (I’ve got a name I can put you in touch with, email me privately)

    =C=

  7. @Scott,

    That’s a personal choice and one I respect. However, I think that you, the talent, should have that choice, not the company. Many people don’t like telecommuting and for those, I think that the company should offer them an office to work in. As I understand it, Sun, being the bohemeth that it is, offers remote workers in many large cities a regional office that they can go into when they need an office. This is a great idea because IMHO, it’s the best of both worlds.

    @Travis!
    Hey man! Long time no see. :) yes, consistent should be added to that. (Think I’ll go amend it right after this comment) To keep the lines open you have to have scheduled times. This is important with new hires of all levels but it’s importance tapers off for mid/senior levels as they get accustom to the team. For juniors, it remains important. I’ve never been a fan of daily meetings but then again, that’s jsut a management style choice. I usually have weekly meetings but then spot check people on a rotating basis. “Hey, how ya doin, let’s talk about your project, things goin’ ok?” That kind of stuff either via IM or phone depending on the personality of the developer.

    @ceoj, I can’t recommend SugarCRM strongly enough. When I was looking for my current job, Sugar was one of the 3 companies I had identified that I wanted to work at. I even went out to the valley and interviewed with them. They are a great company and produce an awesome product. If you are in the biz…you really want to look at them.

    =C=

  8. Hi Cal,

    Great article! I have been asking myself the same question for a couple of times: why am I sitting at the office? I could do this stuff from home too, and maybe even better.

    I sit in the car 2 hours every day to travel to work, so that’s quite some wasted time. (Boss, if you read this: yes i’d love to telecommute ;)). However, I consider myself “lucky” that my girlfiend and I can travel to work together (she works in the same city), so I can spend those 2 hours talking to her.

    Ivo makes a good point that brainstorming a solution on a whiteboard, and personal contact are valuable. Often people missunderstand each other, because they cannot see the expression on each others face (this happens quite a lot on IM and email). Thats the reason why I’d recommend to do meetings “in person” as much as possible. Of course, this depends on the location of your co-workers; can’t expect them to travel 500 miles each they. But if 80% of your employers are withing a 20 mile radius, I’d say: do the meetings in person, and do round table meetings.

    One point I disagree with is the polution issue ;) (don’t shoot me for that). Over here in Belgium, they think that telecommuting is the key to solving traffic issues. This totally isn’t true, as it seems that people who telecommute actually take their car more often than people working from the office. They drive to the store more often, and basicly use their car a lot too, while if they’d have been at the office, they wouldn’t.

    Time to send this article to my boss now ;)

  9. I just want to say that I think telecommuting is a great idea for many reasons, but for myself I need social interaction. I actually like going into an office where there are people.

    … so maybe it’s just that I don’t want to code, maybe I should be the manager because I’d rather talk than touch the computer :P

  10. Hey Cal. I would amend your “clear and open lines of communication” comment to be “clear, open, and consistent…” Since you don’t have the day to day face time with everyone on the team, its important that you do have a set time to communicate and make sure everyone is on the same page. Whether that’s a five minute phone call every morning (a la XP’s stand up meetings) or a more formal weekly review meeting doesn’t matter.

    @ceoj: if you’re looking for work, ping me. We’re always looking for people at SugarCRM and remote is no problem. Cal knows how to get in touch with me, or a quick Google search can guide you to me.

  11. @Ivo, @andreis!

    I totally missed the brainstorming comment. Yes, brainstorming is a different process in a distributed environment but by no means impossible. There are many vendors today offer video and virtual whiteboard services. These are solvable problems.

    I’ve held meetings in irc with great success and even had ‘war room’ situations where the war room was an irc channel. It does take practice and while it alleviates some management headaches, it does create others. Managers need to make sure that remote employees don’t feel left out or isolated. Everyone needs to recognize the limitations of text based communication and cut each other some slack. I used to end sensitive emails with ” If you can take anything I have said two ways, I meant it the good way.” :)

    @andries, since you are spending quality time with your girlfriend, that’s not time wasted. You are however, the exception, not the rule. :) Most of the time I spent telecommuting was spent listening to books on tape.

    Another good point you bring up is that any telecommuting plan has to include a face-to-face component. At MySQL, they bring the entire company together once a year for a big meeting, at Zend, each the Marketing department has an annual get-together so we can all see each other and establish/renew friendships. This is very important.

    On the pollution issue, maybe I’m the exception but these days I am rarely in the car alone. Usually, if I’m going out it’s with wife 1.24, the lovely and talented Kathy. We go out about as much as I did when I worked in an office.

    Thanks for the comment!

    =C=

  12. Hiya Cal (yes, I still owe you that podcast :( )

    I’ve been telecommuting for a year now and I’d have to be grossly over-paid to leave my house and take an office job. All the tools you talked about (Skype, IM, IRC, version control) all take centre stage at the company I work for.

    I’m lucky in that EVERYONE where I work telecommutes, so we’ve become quite adept at dealing with the various communication issues that come up. For the most part, it works quite well…so long as your team isn’t spread out over too many time zones. Where I work, 5 of us are in the Eastern time zone, 2 out on the West Coast.

  13. I’ve been telecommuting since november, when I joined Ivo’s company. So far, I’ve been very happy about this. I work one day a week in the office, and the rest of the time I work from home. Granted, I’ve not worked a lot on joint projects with a full project team, but still, the contact via Skype and IRC ensures I know what’s going on. The single day a week in the office works excellent, it ensures I keep in touch with my co-workers and project manager directly as well (which I do like. the personal meetings are better by far than “digital meetings”).

    But yes, I think this will happen more often, it needs to happen more often. Especially here in the Netherlands, where the traffic jams are so bad that people often spend at least an hour in a traffic jam or a series of traffic jams. That combined with the environmental issues (I am a bit of a “green” person) and the fact that technological advances these days allow for things like this to happen in my humble opinion means peoplel should take advantage of it.

  14. Hi Cal,

    For four years I do business from home, first after my “working” hours when I worked as a freelancer as my secondary job, now it is my job.

    Most of the time our communication is done on mail, but we have on line meetings using skype, virtual whiteboards and remote desktop sharing apps or discuss issues on IM.

    To get your employer in that “telecommuting” mood, be sure that you use these keywords: green or environmental friendlier, cheaper, more productive, less pollution, less overhead, benefits, role model, …

    A few tips and reminders from my side:
    1. Good and clear communication is a skill and if you’re telecommuting you and your employer really need to master this skill.

    2. As a telecommuting employee you need to be able to work independently, preferably in a separate office. This works in two ways: you can physically remove yourself from your wife and kids to concentrate on the job; it has a mental boost too, once you enter your office you actually have the idea you start your day.

    3. A major benefit of telecommuting is that employees are more productive, but this means that as a telecommuting employee you must be able to stay away from work as well (during weekends, evenings, holidays), hence my previous tip on having a separate office.

    4. Make sure that your internet provider has a full up- and download package, because here in Belgium you get a maximum download bandwidth , but uploading is limited.

    5. Be sure to tell your friends and family that you’re working between xxam and xxpm. Nothing is more frustrating then having to interrupt your work because they have nothing else to do then to bother you. You can meet them for lunch or so.

    Just my contribution to the whole telecommuting ideology.

    Michelangelo

  15. I’m another Ibuildings employee and I’m new to the telecommute game, having been working with Ibuildings UK for about 6 weeks now. As I see it, I get to work with a great company whose office isn’t in the same town as I choose to live in. At home I have all the equipment I need and a separate office that I can close the door on. Although I am a social animal, I find having my own working space very peaceful and since I am often out in the evenings after work, I see enough people for this not to be a problem. Communication is an issue but I just work at it, its no different to a workplace split across mutiple offices.

  16. Greetings Cal!

    I finally checked out your blog; I have been meaning to for some time. I am very impressed – you have been at it for a while and it really shows in the consistency and the subject matter. I look forward to examining it more closely later.

    Hope to see you at the geek breakfast tomorrow!

    Have a fantastic day and stay dry.

  17. As someone who commuted 90 miles one-way for over 12 years, there was indeed a great savings of time/money/CO2/stress possible that was wastefully denied. Having all your annual reviews tell you how you’re one of the top go-to guys (a.k.a. highly trustworthy) made the unavailability of the option even worse, to me. Even highlighting that my workaholic nature meant my commute time savings would have been devoted to more work time (poor salaried idiot that I am) was no motivator.

    It was a great job aside from that, enough so that it made the commute worth it to me personally, but it was obviously a big opportunity missed. At least I did build a very large audio book collection… that’s something I actually miss about the commute, now that I’m only 7 miles from my office. Even now I’d prefer to telecommute, solely for the cost/CO2 savings, but still no option is allowed aside from emergency/occasional. It does seem sad to me, though, that I’m trying to find a way to bike to work rather than drive when my work is so obviously 100% remote-capable.

    One day… one day the fully remote option will find me :)

  18. This topic is affecting me in two ways right now.

    1. It’s a topic in the ‘near finished’ PHP job book. (ideally out in the next few weeks). And as usual, there’s only so much you can cover in a book – the experiences here go in to more depth than I was able to in the book, but also validate and echo a lot of the issues raised there.

    2. I’m currently transitioning to what will likely be a phase of telecommuting on a number of projects. Over the last year I’ve talked to a number of employers who were eager to have me on board, but all backed out at the last minute because of the telecommuting issue. They were ‘not ready for’ not ‘comfortable with’ telecommuting. In some ways I understood their hesitation, but you also don’t get better at something without trying it. I’m not trying to go out of my way to be someone’s test case(!), but I ended up having to develop a “it’s them, not me” mindset (which I think was/is mostly justified), but it still is a downer to realize how ‘behind the curve’ so many companies are. I will also say that I 100% agree that face to face is great, having group meetings, and being in the same room whiteboarding is a vital experience, and really adds something to many, if not all, teams. But in some (many?) situations having strong people on the team who aren’t in the same room 100% of the time will outweigh having less talented people sitting in the same room.

    Great and timely topic Cal!

  19. Other than a period of of a few years where I was working out of a (few) offices, I’ve done all my PHP development/sys-admin from home. The last year or so I’ve been working for a dating website, still from home and generally loving it – dispite being the only developer for most of that. Since Xmas (call it 12 weeks), I’ve been to the office maybe 6 times, once for a meal out, and then a few times to interview/hire new developers.

    I’ve got Central-London style salary for an out-of-city rent, and no transport costs. While finding good people that can work independently isn’t easy (and we are still working on that), it’s good to be able to offer other Grade-One-Geek’s a chance to work in their own favourite environment – right there in front of their own PC, and if they want to work 6am – 3pm instead of my 9:30-6, I’ve not got a problem with that.

    I’ve also got a guy working with me that took a £7,000 paycut (call it $14K) – but will save at least that much in transport costs, to say nothing of 4+ hr per day! commute into central London, or to have the ability to be right there at home with his 1 year old baby when they have a fever. No amount of money could buy that.

    We talk almost every day via Skype, and a face to face every couple of weeks has also been useful. Next week – a BBQ at his place while we plan the next big set of features and site upgrades (including moving to Zend Framework).

    I do know you’d have to pay me a ridiculous amount to have me commute any serious distance again – if you could convince me at all.

  20. Great topic, Cal! It’d be interesting to me to see this conversation take the “what’s in it for the company” track next. The benefits to employees are clear and numerous. What are the benefits to the company? What types of businesses would benefit most from a distributed staff?

    Thanks!

  21. @Lisa,

    I would like to provide you a few major benefits for employers on this matter:

    1. The biggest advantage is that you need less or no office space to rent or buy.

    2. Your employees are in general more productive then in the office and often work (a little) longer, because they don’t have to commute, even if they during the day for shopping or personal appointments.

    3. As a company you can say you think about the environment by having (almost all) of your employees working from home. These days it is cool to be green, so that’s an extra benefit.

    4. You can get very good deals on hardware and internet connections for telecommuting employees, where the benefit is that you can use their support facilities to cope with hardware and/or connection issues at the employees home. This can reduce the IT overhead between 5% to 15%.

    5. It’s now a good argument to attract new employees, because most of them already lost interest in the common benefits like a company car or cell phone. Telecommuting is becoming an exceptional benefit that your competition can’t provide yet.

    There are more things you can add to this list, but I think this is already a good start. I know there are several studies made on this subject, so maybe someone can point you to these studies where example costs were compared to the conventional employee environment.

    Hope this helped a bit,

    Michelangelo

  22. Hello,

    I noticed that one of the posts on your website is about telecommuting. I’m Rick Dane, the creator of a new telecommute web community where users can review and rate employers, find jobs, and network with others using our site’s social network. The site is free to use for all members and we are hoping to get the word our to people who may be interested. Unfortunately there are a lot of dead ends and scams in the work from home / telecommute employment field so the goal of our site is to be a reliable source for those interested in this.

    If you like our site or think it has any potential and want to post on your site about it send us a link and we will post it on the “Media Coverage”: (http://telecommutereview.com/content/media-coverage) section of our site. Thanks and have a nice day.

    Sincerely,
    Rick Dane
    http://telecommutereview.com

  23. How one can assess the work done by telecommuters? What is the criteria to give them promotions? Do leave policy apply for them too? How frequently they need to come to office?…are some questions that keep coming to me..Never the less, I say, telecommuting can be a part time affair _ what say?
    Steve

  24. Hi Steve!

    When I am managing remote workers, I asses their work the same as I do someone in the office. When I assign a task, I have a general idea of how long it should take. I discus it with the person and make sure we are in agreement. Then I leave them alone to get the task done. “leave them alone” is relative. I don’t ping them every day and ask for a status report. I do ping them a couple of times a day just to make sure things are going well. Similar to the way I would walk by their desk if they were in the office and say hi.

    It is important that they are treated like other employees so yes, leave policies apply to them too. Working from home is not generally an open invitation to run errands all day. Unless you work out a different arrangement, it is important for the process that remote employees adhere to the office rules and norms. 9i.e. if work begins at 8:00 AM then they need to be at their desk and working at 8:00 AM, not sitting down with their first cup of coffee and reading their email before going up to shower and change.

    For workers that are near the office, arranging for a day a week in the office is not un-reasonable. For long distance workers, a policy of regular visits helps keep the employee connected to the company. When I worked for Zend, I traveled to the office 3-5 times a year. Many times it was when I was out on the West Coast anyhow for a conference but if I wasn’t planning on being in the office for more than 2 months, I usually got a request to come visit.

    Telecommuting can be either a part-time affair or a full time affair. I started telecommuting when I was moonlighting as a contract programmer but have had both FT and PT gigs at this point.

    Thanks for the comment!

    =C=

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