Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 18, 2009

Telecommuting

Filed under: Management,Project Management — Jag @ 10:08 pm
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These days, working from home is all the rage in employee benefits. Academic HR papers extoll the virtues of one company or the other allowing its employees to work from home, and how it has helped improve productivity at the company. Indeed research I and two of my MBA classmates conducted into Generation Y bears out these expectations.

What’s a manager, or a project manager to do? Can project work effectively occur from a remote location? How does communication work? How does team building work?

Some things to think about:

  1. If the work is of a routine operational nature, with well known, documented, easily measureable steps, then it is a slam dunk. You can monitor the process just as well from home as you can from work. Examples of such jobs in an IT setting might be a production DBA, infrastructure support, help desk, etc. Unfortunately project work by definition is unique, and does not lend itself well to such standardization.
  2. If the work is of a unique nature, where communication is key, performance metrics are not available or non-existent, and where team output is greater than the sum of the output of the individuals, working at home is not the answer. There is a lot to be gained from working together at one location, in an environment conducive to teaming (large open plan work areas, sufficient meeting space, lack of walls, etc).
  3. Even in a project environment, there is a certain proportion of desk time that each person needs to spend, free of disturbances. Such time can just as easily be spent from home with one big caveat… as long as there is trust that the person doing so will be as productive. I would recommend allowing your best performers to work a day or two per week from home, in recognition of their accomplishments. You’ll need to make it clear to all concerned at the outset that working from home is a privilege, to be granted (or withdrawn) at the manager’s discretion. Employees so choosing need to advertise their contact information (home or mobile phone numbers) and be expected to be on call via phone or email for the entire work day.
  4. If contractors are paid by the hour, then they need to work from the office. While I am a great believer in egalitarianism among all team members, this is where I draw the line. It is simply too difficult and time consuming to measure the output of a contractor making north of $100 an hour unless you clearly know at all times what you are getting for the money spent. If you’re a contractor, one way to work from home is to come up with some sort of a firm fixed price arrangement for work.

In summary, work-from-home arrangements need to be treated as a privilege for project team members, and an even rarer privilege, to be extended to contractors in rare situations where the trust factor is high. For operational jobs, as long as there are clear performance metrics, working from home does not seem to be an issue.

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