The trouble with telecommuting

Telework can change office dynamics in ways you hadn't anticipated. Here are six questions to ask before you say yes.

Telecommuting is back on workers' radars in a big way these days, thanks to gas prices that were a whopping 30 percent higher this summer than last.

Telecommuter wannabes are lining up outside their bosses' offices with work-from-home plans in hand, and many of them could get their wish this time around: According to WorldatWork, an association of human resource professionals, 40 percent more employers are offering telework programs this year than last year. Should your IT employees be part of that burgeoning crowd?

It's certainly tempting to say yes. Increasing fuel costs and heightened corporate environmental consciousness are magnifying many of the benefits of telework, including conserving fuel (and money), reducing traffic congestion (and CO 2 emissions), and reducing space and energy use at the employer's facility. Employers also often find that they're better able to attract and retain talented workers with the flexibility and increased job satisfaction that telework programs offer.

All of that is driving a huge number of inquiries from organizations looking to deploy more systematic, companywide telework programs, says Josh Holbrook, an analyst at Yankee Group Research.

That said, IT and telework don't have an unblemished record of success. In 2006, Hewlett-Packard ended teleworking arrangements for hundreds of its IT workers. And early this year, Intel began requiring more than half the teleworkers in its IT group to report to the office at least four days a week. In both instances, the companies indicated that teleworking had had a negative impact on IT employee productivity and collaboration.

Although a few reversals of telework policy do not constitute a trend, those cases should caution technology managers who might otherwise be inclined to say OK to telecommuting.

"These instances get attention because they cut against the grain," Holbrook says. "The trend is overwhelmingly in the other direction."

Nevertheless, in some instances, managers or even whole business units have "gone rogue," he says, allowing employees to work from home without the right technology, policies and procedures in place. "It's very possible for a well-meaning manager to shove the employee out of the corporate jet without a parachute," Holbrook warns.

Some telework decisions are fairly obvious. Most managers wouldn't let a new, inexperienced employee telework until he had proved himself, for example. But there are other, more subtle aspects of a person's character and work style and a company's culture that can make or break a telework arrangement.

Computerworld talked with telework experts and IT managers to discover some of these nuances. Before you approve telework, make sure you've asked yourself and your employees these tough questions.

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