"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
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
With the proper tools and management techniques, telecommuting can be
a big advantage for agencies looking to retain talented workers and maximize
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
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
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
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
—Bragg is an independent consultant and systems architect with extensive
experience in the federal market.