Debugging Telework

"If I can't see them, how do I know they're working?" is a common reaction

to the idea of telecommuting among agency managers (indeed, among managers

everywhere).

Not all workers have the right home situation or personality to telecommute.

However, a surprising number of workers do have the capability, and they

appreciate the flexibility and freedom from commuting snarls that telecommuting

can offer.

With the proper tools and management techniques, telecommuting can be

a big advantage for agencies looking to retain talented workers and maximize

employee productivity.

To begin with, telecommuting works best, by far, if workers use laptops.

Having one computer that can be taken to work and used at home avoids a

host of problems, such as data synchronization or not having the right files

in one location or another. Plus, the laptop should pay for itself within

a year.

Second, high-speed network access at home helps. For many workers, the

office is the place where high-speed Internet access is available, and such

access is vital for research and downloading materials.

Until recently, if you needed high-speed residential access, Integrated

Services Digital Network was the only practical choice. However, ISDN suffers

from high per-minute charges once you exceed the base amount of usage per

month. Most neighborhoods within major metropolitan areas now have either

some kind of Digital Subscriber Line service or cable modem access, which

have fixed and affordable monthly costs. That allows efficient file sharing

and near- instantaneous e-mail.

Finally, you will get the greatest benefit from telecommuters if you

can improve "staying in touch." One thing that telecommuters often cite

as a problem is losing touch with their co-workers, and the lack of the

informal, ad hoc communications that are common in an office.

There are several ways to address that problem. First, consider a cell

phone for telecommuters, or robust phone forwarding on the agency phone

system.

Second, have your telecommuters use an instant message program so that

fellow workers can easily ask them a question or share an idea. Those programs

enable employees to know when co-workers are online, to pass small messages

back and forth, and even to engage in small chat sessions among three or

more people.

A small camera at the remote location for videoconferencing also is

a good investment.

To make it all work, of course, you need to give people assignments

that have a tangible outcome during a relatively short time frame. Measure

telecommuters' output, and you may discover that they are not only working,

but they're working more effectively.

In some sectors, such as information technology, agencies cannot compete

head-on with private industry's skyrocketing salaries and stock option deals.

To keep talented workers, enlightened telecommuting may be the key in many

cases.

—Bragg is an independent consultant and systems architect with extensive

experience in the federal market.

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