How to Make Telecommuting Work

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The recent announcement that Yahoo is calling in all of its telecommuters highlights the fact that all kinds of romantic mythology has ,

The problem with telecommuting is sand in your laptop.

The problem with telecommuting is sand in your laptop.

developed around the practice. One view holds telecommuting as the panacea whereby companies save money on office space, people focus on work instead of office politics and the world is a greener, kinder place because mothers are with their children and cars are off the road. Another has telecommuting as the slow, toxic degradation of a company’s fabric, teamwork and identity where synergies die and workers spend half their paid time watching House of Cards.

But really, telecommuting is just one way to work. Telecommuting can work and telecommuting can fail, just like working

onsite can work and working onsite can fail.

You still need to hire the right people and set up the right systems that make the working relationship flourish. So here are some specific strategies to making telecommuting work:

  • Define Your Outcomes: It’s hard to manage someone you can’t see. On the other hand, you can look right at an employee and not realize that while the spreadsheet is on his screen, he’s having an instant messaging fight with his girlfriend. So decide, instead, what the outcomes need to be. What do you want that employee to accomplish in an hour, a day, a week? Is it a certain number of calls? A certain number of deals closed or pages written?  Is it something more tied to business objectives? At Zappos, performance is tied to customer happiness. Find a metric that will let you measure a telecommuter’s performance. If you don’t know what’s reasonable to expect and rely on being able to see a person toiling away, your employees may be underperforming.  An HR professional can help identify reasonable expectations.  


  • Continue to Manage: You can’t just hire someone and then cut him or her adrift. You need to devote a certain number of hours every week to reviewing performance, discussing issues that either of you have—obstacles and opportunities.  You need to keep status reports on whatever time schedule you decide—daily, weekly—and make sure you have a procedure for visiting them. Out-of-sight cannot mean out-of-mind.


  • Hold Great Meetings: As we pointed out in the last post,Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer was right that meetings can promote teamwork and creativity. But you can have a great meeting with team members on Skype, Google Hangout, or paid venues like GotoMeeting, where you’re all expected to contribute.  As long as you know how to run an efficient, goal oriented meeting, where expectations are clear and people know they need to be prepared and mentally present, being in the same room isn’t that important.

Tony Hsieh, Zappos founder, came to Austin recently for a Social Business Summit put on by Dachis Group and for SXSW. His employees don’t telecommute. In fact, he is trying to build a little city-within-a-city in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, where his employees are forced to run into each other on a regular basis. They’ve taken over 40 percent of a 275-unit apartment building where many of them live as if they were in a posh college dorm. It works, Hsieh said, because they all like each other as people as well as colleagues.

That’s one way to do it. The question is, does it work? Whatever your system is, does it work?

The important thing is to get your business objectives, culture, operating systems and HR lined up.

We can help companies  identify the people and processes that will make the relationship work.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.

We can help.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.