Don’t Yahoo! Your Telecommuters

It has been a couple weeks since Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer canned Yahoo’s telecommuting program. Most have come in on the side of the telecommuters but there are plenty that don’t. The results Yahoo may garner from the process may take awhile to attain and there is no guarantee that the change will actually improve things.

Part of the problem is that Yahoo has major problems and this move is just a minor change that Mayer is taking. It will probably not have anywhere near the impact of other actions but it is one of the more notable ones from those viewing the company from the outside.

Telecommuting will only be successful if management supports it. That is obviously not the case with Yahoo but that does not mean that telecommuting is a bad idea or that it doesn’t work. There are more than enough studies, surveys and feedback that show that it works and actually improves employee productivity.

Telecommuting is not always an option. Jobs that require a physical presence obviously do not work but there are plenty that can allow telecommuting part of the time. In my case, it works all the time. I’ve been telecommuting for decades with great success but it required the support of management.

One of the earliest jobs that I was a telecommuter was with a company called Rising Star, the creator of Valdocs. Valdocs ran on a Z80-based Epson QX-10. It supported a background mail program that depended upon modems. Remember those things. They used to sing to each over telephone lines. The Internet was not even a gleam in someone’s eye but it worked. We used to get together for lunch or a meeting about once a week but all the development was done at home.

These days VPNs, texting and video conferencing are available to just about everyone. Massive amounts of data can be moved around, securely if necessary. The capabilities are mind boggling but any stumbling blocks tend to be management related rather than technological hurdles.

Transitioning to a telecommuting environment often exposes general management issues. If a manager does not know what they are managing or how to gauge the work of their employees then having them work remotely typically exacerbates the problem. Doing it right often means documenting and formalizing processes that can be good for the company in the long run.

One challenge is reminding people that communication is still required. Often people assume that others do not want or need to talk to people if you don’t see them.  Too often people say they need face-to-face communication but what they really mean is they do not know how to communicate without talking directly with someone else. In other cases they may simply not be good at communicating, period.

To successfully build a telecommuting environment requires preparation, training and good management. You can guarantee failure by simply sending someone off with an Internet connection and a laptop. Things get worse if there are a dozen people involved with a dozen different platforms and environments. Remember that the tools need to work together if the employees are going to work together using them.

I am always surprised by technology companies that are very selective on the types of technology they employ. They often ignore telecommuting putting them at a disadvantage compared to the competition. This ranges from not having access to talent that might not want to move to reducing the amount of useful work being done because time is being expended with travel.

Managing expectations is often what management fails to do. Telecommuting can provide management and workers with flexibility but it should not turn into a way to get something for nothing. All too often a telecommuter is assumed to be available 24-7 or 18-6 rather than 8-5.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with companies that have been good when it comes to telecommuting. How about you?

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