Should your IT staff telework?

Companies are split on whether it’s a good idea to let IT employees work from home.

"When you first start working in IT, and with people who are doing what you're doing, it would be much more difficult to learn from others if you were telecommuting, because they're not right next to you," he says. "The new people learn from the more veteran people, and if they aren't all sitting together, you can lose out on a lot of training that occurs informally in IT."

Ironically, staying in touch can be easier as a teleworker, he has found. As an in-office manager, Bruner spent a lot of time in meetings, and his direct reports tended to touch base only when they could catch him in his office. As a teleworker, Bruner says his reports are able to contact him more quickly when they need to, using instant messaging, e-mail or the phone.

"When I started telecommuting I had 10 direct reports. After I had worked remotely for a few months, I asked how things were different for them. They said I was more accessible to them than I had been when I was in the office," recalls Bruner.

One tech executive who has done an about-face on the issue of IT workers telecommuting is John Halamka. "I believed that employees needed proximity to work together effectively. I no longer believe that to be true," says Halamka, who is CIO of Boston's CareGroup Health System and CIO and technology dean at Harvard Medical School.

Halamka penned an article for CIO magazine in which he detailed what changed his mind and led him to pursue a telework pilot, which is ongoing, for certain call center employees, medical record coders and desktop engineering teams at CareGroup's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Not for everyone

As in every industry, however, there are roadblocks slowing telework adoption by IT professionals.

The IT industry is susceptible to the same doubts (which telework advocates work hard to dispel) about whether teleworkers are working hard enough. In the Robert Half survey, 44 per cent of CIOs felt that quality of work suffers due to diminished in-person contact with colleagues, and 30 per cent felt that telecommuting employees are not as productive because they have less oversight.

In addition, 31 per cent of CIOs felt that telecommuting employees generate too many security risks because they need to access corporate networks, systems and intellectual property off-site.

Another concern for some IT teams is that allowing teleworking could lead a company to decide to outsource its IT operations, says industry analyst Noel. "There's fear that if people get used to IT not having to come in to the office, then it's only a short step to say, 'Well then why can't we just outsource IT completely?' Especially since the offshoring trend has just ballooned," she says.

Plus for some IT jobs, being onsite is key to getting the job done.

Certain IT roles such as programming, application development and consulting might lend themselves to telework, notes Craig Bush, a network administrator at Exactech. But if a job requires hands-on work, such as installing network equipment, or face-to-face interaction with end users, such as help desk, he doesn't think it should be a candidate for working from home.

"We don't currently encourage work at home as we generally cannot solve the problems and troubleshoot things, nor can we provide customer service to our internal customers by working outside the office," Bush says.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance comes from having a clear separation between work and home life, he adds. "I also think it's probably a good thing [we don't telework], as we get a proper work-life balance by the separation of our work and home life."

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Ann Bednarz

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