Do your teleworkers have the right stuff?

Working remotely today is a realistic option, but not everyone is cut out for it. Here are some guidelines to evaluate whether an employee is ready to fly solo.
Posted September 1, 1998

James R. Wolf

In the 1980s, telecommuting was touted as a utopian plan that would simultaneously improve the lives of workers and save the earth. Today, it's a way of life for 12 million Americans. But is your company really maximizing the benefits of telework?

To succeed outside of the office, it's important for an organization to provide its teleworkers with the proper training, as well as the necessary emotional and physical support. At Merrill Lynch, teleworkers must complete two weeks of training and telework simulation before they can work from home. And this type of program is becoming more widespread; a growing number of companies, including AT&T and the International Telework Association (TAC), now offer training classes for telecommuters. These groups not only assist employees planning to work from home, but they also provide guidance on creating a successful telework program.

Companies that allow employees to perform some or all of their duties outside of the office are seeing tangible savings in reduced office space and maintenance costs. For instance, 55% of AT&T's U.S.-based managers work from home at least one day a week (see the chart, "Telecommuting days"). By sharing office space the telecom giant is saving $3,000 per teleworker annually in real estate and associated costs (for additional details, visit Telecommuting proponents cite studies showing that total cost savings are even greater, around $8,500 per teleworker (see

But in today's tight job market, the advantages afforded to employees may be far more important than those gained by companies offering the option of telecommuting. Employees who work remotely report that they are more satisfied with their jobs and more productive. They also miss less work due to stress-related illnesses and are less likely to jump ship.

Useful guidelines

Although telecommuting may appear to be a win-win situation, it's not appropriate for every employee. As the number of telecommuters continues to swell, more and more companies are reporting problems with the arrangement. In fact, Illinois Institute of Technology professor Christina Nippert-Eng estimates that one in five of all telecommuting arrangements fail.

To ensure that an employee is capable of flying solo, it's important to screen potential teleworkers carefully. Keeping the following criteria in mind when selecting participants for your company's telecommuting program can help them succeed:

Job suitability: Although portions of almost any white-collar job can be accomplished outside the office, some tasks are more suited for telework than others. For instance, many companies have found that programmers, analysts, and other IT workers can effectively telecommute, and they're using this work arrangement to help recruit and retain these key employees. Sales and marketing personnel are also successful telecommuters. According to spokesperson Diane Wagner of regional telephone company Ameritech, staff from sales, marketing, and project and product management currently makes up the bulk of the Chicago-based company's teleworkers. Ameritech plans to have 10,000 of its employees working from home two or more days per week by the year 2001.

Personal considerations: Many workers find working from home an attractive alternative. Employees with long commutes or those who are struggling to balance work and family life have added motivation to make the arrangement work. But telecommuting offers workers more than piece of mind--it can be a cost saver. They spend less time in their cars, which reduces fuel costs and wear and tear on their vehicles. Employees, especially those who are required to wear suits in the office, will also save money on clothing and dry cleaning. And eating at home is cheaper--and healthier--than eating out.

Motivation: A successful teleworker needs the discipline and organizational skills to work without supervision. This goes beyond trustworthiness. Although few workers would be tempted to spend their telecommuting hours napping or playing golf, many may have trouble getting motivated to work in their bathrobes and bunny slippers. And when they're home, they don't have the same access to the department's networking guru or have the luxury of looking over their cubes to ask a coworker for help with a database problem. You can avoid technical glitches by following the example of Merrill Lynch. The New York City-based company caters to the needs of its teleworkers with a 24-hour helpline.

Length of service: Telecommuters should be full-time employees with enough experience to perform their required duties at home because learning new aspects of a position when separated from coworkers and training manuals will be much more difficult than in a traditional office setting. Teleworkers should have been a part of the in-house team long enough to have developed working relationships with other team members. Workers are less likely to contact a coworker that they don't know, and new workers may get left out of the loop if they're not in the office, which will no doubt reduce the overall effectiveness of the team.

Communication skills: E-mail messages and telephone calls are a telecommuter's primary means of communication. People who have difficulty communicating effectively through either medium will not be successful at-home workers.

Performance: Although an employee needn't be a superstar to be effective as a telecommuter, clearly, you don't want underperformers working from home. Workers who have difficulty completing assignments with the support and structure of the office are even less likely to succeed without supervision. On the other hand, top performers may be even more productive at home. The majority of AT&T's teleworkers report that they are more productive because they experience fewer interruptions from coworkers and can concentrate on the tasks at hand.

However, many of these interruptions come from newer employees attempting to learn their tasks. Allowing an expert to work from home may remove an important resource for less experienced staff and increase the group's learning curve.

Effects on coworkers: One of the biggest obstacles to fostering effective telework arrangements is the perception of coworkers, who often believe that the telecommuters are at home watching Oprah, not pulling their weight. This causes resentment and hurts a team's cohesiveness. Other problems may arise if employees are difficult to reach or if their telework time creates schedule conflicts.

Supervisor support: Managing teleworkers can be difficult for managers accustomed to working in a traditional office. They may feel threatened by a perceived loss of power or they may simply be unfamiliar with the nuances of managing employees remotely. Managers may need to work harder to ensure that all of the staff is informed and that work is distributed equitably.

Is telecommuting an option for your employees? How do you balance the needs of the employee versus the company? Let us know in an e-mail.
Home office It's important that telecommuters have the proper equipment and enough space to work from home. Satisfying these requirements goes beyond simply ensuring that an employee has a computer, fax, and telephone. Some states require employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace--even if the employee works from home--so many companies inspect a worker's home office before approving a teleworking arrangement. A Merrill Lynch employee's home office must meet strict company guidelines that even specify a company-approved chair.

Today, teleworking is a flexible benefit that can increase productivity and job satisfaction. Evaluating your company's potential telecommuters with a few basic guidelines will ensure that the employees selected have the right stuff to succeed. //

The Hunt by James Wolf James R. Wolf is an assistant professor of Computer Information Systems at Cedarville College in Cedarville, Ohio, and a freelance writer specializing in Internet-related topics. His e-mail address is


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