Telecommuting Joys and Concerns

by Quinn Heiner

Ask most software engineers whether they would prefer an option to work from home, most would say in a heartbeat, yes!  Ask most employers whether they would prefer their engineers to work from home, most would  say no. Below is a breakdown of some of the main pros and cons from both points of view.

The 5 Pros

  • Flexible schedule.  Working from home means you have a much more flexible schedule, since you’re not constrained by a commute or by limitations from the physical worksite.  For the employer, this can also be a benefit if they need to reach an employee outside of the typical 9-5 workday.
  • Cost Savings. For the employee, gas and wear-and-tear on the car is certainly a cost savings, not to mention the sheer fact that time is money.  For the employer, a lot of the fixed costs to “house” an employee (utilities, office space, hardware, etc.) are greatly minimized.
  • Fewer workplace distractions. It’s often said that negativity breeds negativity.  The same can also be said for unproductiveness.  Just about every workplace has a class clown or drama queen who is in constant need of attention and distraction.  Having your own location can shield you from these types of distractions so you can focus more on getting the job done.
  • Physical mobility. In addition to working when you want, working where you want is important.  Some people are simply more productive when they’re working where they want to be working, not just when.  This is especially true of jobs that require a high degree of creativity.
  • More time. Taking away a commute obviously frees up time for the employee.  In addition, a trade-off in working remotely for the employer is that almost always the employee is to be available outside of regular business hours.

The 5 Cons

  • More domestic distractions. Although there may be fewer workplace distractions, the tradeoff for the employee is obviously more distractions at their remote location.  This is greatly amplified for married couples with kids, or people with roommates who are regularly present.  Time at the home office for you sometimes translates to a list of honey-do items and constant attention-seeking quests from others.
  • More self-discipline and trust needed. This is the toughest challenge for an employee who is working remotely.  Since you’re not being monitored, it’s incredibly tempting to slack a little, especially when you’re usually in the same environment that you’re used to relaxing in on the evenings and weekends.  For employers, this is the number one obstacle to overcome when trying to institute a blanket work-from-home policy, since every employee reacts differently to such freedom and flexibility, some for the better, and some for the worse.
  • Communication challenges. A quick side conversation to solve a problem or receive further guidance suddenly becomes an email that takes five times as long to write, not to mention how much communication really is non-verbal at the end of the day. Trying to coordinate and touch base with everyone can be particularly challenging when you’re not in the same physical area.
  • Work relationship challenges. It can be very difficult to forge meaningful and important professional relationships with people without any physical presence.  Team cohesiveness and company culture are difficult to forge when everyone is at separate locations doing their own thing.
  • Environment setup issues, especially security. This is particularly challenging for companies with sensitive data.  When so much of working from home these days involves BYOD (bring your own device), how can a company possibly protect intellectual property, especially when sensitive data is involved?  What if an employee’s local environment is down for hours at a time, when the situation would have never occurred had they just been at the physical worksite?

Fixing the Cons
So is it possible to overcome these cons?  Let’s address each one in turn:

  • CON: More domestic distractions.  ANSWER: lay down the ground rules. From day one, you will need to set the expectation to those living with you that they should treat your working from home the same as though you were at the physical office and that any time lost for a quick errand or other distraction will have to be made up accordingly.
  • CON: More self-discipline and trust needed.  ANSWER: higher accountability, measuring deliverables, not man hours. This is perhaps the biggest road block to employers’ setting a fair policy for all, because it largely depends on the individual employee how productive they will be in a work-from-home environment.  Some employees thrive when working from home, and others struggle with their newly discovered freedom and temptation to slack a bit.  However, having a clear and consistent system of accountability in place (that is fair to all) will not only force self-discipline, but mutual trust will naturally follow as milestones are being met.  In reality, you have to meet or exceed the kind of accountability at the physical worksite. The key is to keep a clear expectation of measurable deliverables, and consistently enforce accountability without micro-managing.
  • CON: Communication challenges. ANSWER: plan regular team meetings.  Set aside regularly scheduled meetings, whether it is through video chat, conference calling, or even a chat room.  Daily SCRUM is a given in order to enforce and guide deliverables and expectations.  It may also be helpful to set aside regular office hours of everyone working remotely in which they should be able to respond to others immediately.
  • CON: Work relationship challenges. ANSWER: plan regular team-building events. There simply is no substitute for mingling with co-workers in person, and the only way to do this is to plan regular company events that’s worth everyone’s time.  A fine balance should be struck between mere socialization with no agenda and forcing team-building activities that nobody finds worthwhile.  The best team-building events I’ve been to are usually paid lunches where the first half is spent socializing and eating, and the last half is spent discussing work-related topics in a town-hall type format.
  • CON: Environment setup issues, including security. ANSWER: provide reliable I.T. support, including VPN access for security. In order to best facilitate working from home, the employer must take the initiative to provide reliable and helpful I.T. support to make sure employees are always up and running.  In terms of security, anything that is not meant for public consumption should be behind a VPN firewall.  For highly sensitive data, company-issued hardware complete with two-factor authentication should be considered, rather than a blanket BYOD policy.

In conclusion, by forging a relationship of trust and accountability, having a consistent and secure environment, and scheduling regular team interactions, both employers and employees can come together to institute a win-win scenario when it comes to allowing employees to work remotely.