Telecommuting: Steps to decide if it's right for you

Unhappy co-workers, like insecure managers, can create problems; many projects require close work among team members

by DANA H. SHULTZ


Telecommuting -- working at home, relying on voice and data communication to stay in touch with the office -- looks like the best of all worlds for everyone. Employees, dressed as casually as they want, turn frustrating commutes into family and leisure time. Businesses reduce the cost of office space. The air is cleaner because fewer miles are driven.

Yet for all its apparent advantages, telecommuting carries no guarantee of success. Here are some factors to help you decide whether telecommuting is right for a given situation:

Is the employee a disciplined self-starter?

Not everyone is capable of jumping right into work and filtering out home-based intrusions. Some people lack the discipline to focus strictly on work when other activities are going on around them. For these individuals, a separate office with a sound-tight door can be very helpful.

Similarly, some employees feel lost without day-to-day, minute-to-minute contact with co-workers. For them, telecommuting is not likely to be productive.

Does the employee have -- or will the employer provide -- up-to-date computer and telecommunication resources?

Even more than an in-office job, telecommuting demands an effective technology infrastructure. The telecommuter needs to be self-reliant regarding computer hardware and software. Typically this means an up-to-date PC (Pentium processor), Microsoft Windows 3.1 or Windows95, an office software suite from Corel or Microsoft and any business-specific applications the employer relies on.

Data communication will be equally important. Aside from possibly needing access to the Internet and proprietary database services for research, the telecommuter almost certainly will need Internet-based electronic mail and, possibly, direct access to the employer's computer network. Depending on the volume of data and response times required, these capabilities may require anything from a modem on a standard telephone line to digital ISDN or frame-relay connections.

Is the employee's manager sufficiently secure and skilled to manage far-away, rarely-seen personnel?

Some managers need to constantly see and check up on their staff. There is, of course, a question as to whether this type of individual can be an effective manager even under the most favorable circumstances. There is no way, however, that this type of manager will feel comfortable with a telecommuter on staff.

Will non-telecommuting co-workers accept the situation without feeling threatened or becoming jealous?

Unhappy co-workers, like insecure managers, can create major problems. Many projects require close work among team members. To the extent that non-telecommuting co-workers resent the "special" treatment the telecommuter receives, team effectiveness may suffer.

Have the employee and manager established a plan for evaluating the success of telecommuting?

As with any new business endeavor, the parties should develop evaluation criteria and methodologies to see how well they are doing. Be sure to include both objective criteria (Is work being completed on time? Is quality acceptable?) and subjective criteria (Is employee morale high? Is the manager comfortable with the working relationship?)

If you can answer yes to all these questions, then go ahead. There is a good chance that everyone will receive the benefits they are expecting from telecommuting.


Dana H. Shultz, an Oakland-based lawyer, may be reached by e-mail at dhshultz@ds-a.com and on the World Wide Web at http://seamless.com/ds/.

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