In defense of telework

I work from home one day a week. Most of my coworkers do as well.

So I was interested when I read about Yahoo! doing! away! with! telecommuting! (with apologies to The Register. I couldn’t resist.)

When I got this job, being able to work from home one day a week was the part that impressed everyone more than anyone else. My former managers shook their heads and said, “You know we can’t match that.” (Several things about my previous job kept working from home from being an option.) Several of my friends called me a “rock star,” for landing such a gig.

It works pretty well for us, but there are caveats.

Attending meetings by phone is doable, but I don’t like it. Some offices have snazzy Cisco teleconferencing equipment that makes remote meetings work really well, but I don’t have that in my basement. So most of us schedule our telework day on the days we have the fewest meetings, and we try our best to schedule meetings around everyone’s telework days.

For solving some problems, puzzling it out in person just works better.

Then again, I have some projects that I deliberately put off until my telework day. One of my duties is writing or editing security documentation. Sometimes I like it quiet for that; sometimes I want some music, and sometimes I want some things that people question whether it’s really music. When I’m secluded in my office in the far corner of the basement, I can get any of those things, and I concentrate better and do a better job without bothering anyone or anyone else bothering me.

I’m reachable of course, by IM, e-mail, or phone, while teleworking, and since we do a fair bit of communicating via IM anyway for the sake of quietness, in that regard, there isn’t a lot of difference.

So teleworking takes a bit of adjustment in the way we work, both for the office as a whole and each employee, but there are benefits. We find what we’re able to do better from home and what we’re able to do better at the office, and everyone benefits.

There’s a bit of adjustment on the homefront, too. It’s important to establish boundaries. You’re home, but you’re working, so we can’t treat it like a day off. Now, if I come upstairs for a cup of coffee and there’s a basket of laundry that needs to go in the wash, I’ll carry it down. But I can’t spend my telework day doing laundry or painting the living room.

But there’s benefit, too. If I want to spend my 30-minute lunch doing something around the house, I have that option. If I have an appointment at the doctor or the accountant, I can do that, make up the hours at the end of the day, and save leave time. And I have no commute on my telework day, so my day is effectively longer.

There’s a benefit to the client, too. Our most heavily certified people are also the most sought after. Our phones ring a lot. (Mine rings once a month if I’m not actively looking; once every couple of days if I am.) Telework is the one thing our shop offers that few other places do. That reduces turnover. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve had opportunities to walk away, and couldn’t bring myself to do it.

From a disaster recovery standpoint, there are benefits, too. If something were to happen to the office building we work in, we’re not crippled. We can fire up our laptops from home, VPN in using the infrastructure at our office in Kansas City, plug in our encrypted USB drives containing our backups, and still get work done. It’s not ideal, but it’s a lot better than having no contingency plan, and much easier than building from scratch.

That’s actually part of our disaster recovery plan. Once a year, we have as many people as possible telework for a week, to ensure our VPN and the rest of our infrastructure can handle it. The only way to know if your failover works is if you fail the system over sometimes–yes, this applies to your network devices, your RAID arrays, and your other fail-safe equipment–so this is a good thing for everyone involved. Tabletop exercises are one thing, but telework week forces the infrastructure to support a real-world workload and brings any problems to light before the emergency occurs.

I can see where having employees who telework full-time can be less than ideal. I don’t think I could attend meetings virtually and be effective, and I certainly couldn’t attend meetings via phone from home and take really good notes. It’s much harder to tell over the phone who’s talking, for example. But I’ve seen the benefit of building some occasional telework into the schedule and the work culture. There are benefits to both, and if you can get them, why not?

Some people argue today that offices are obsolete, an archaic product of the industrial revolution that’s outlived its usefulness. Technology is making centralization less necessary. But it could be that a hybrid approach is the ideal for the information age. It’s still a bit early to say that for certain, but from what I can see, the approach works for now.

7 thoughts on “In defense of telework

  • February 27, 2013 at 8:48 am
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    My most recent full-time employer did not have an office. It was part of the design of the company. We all worked from home full-time, working in an office only if the clients needed it (and so I was on-site probably 2-3 times a month).

    There were a lot of tradeoffs. My employer didn’t need to pay for an office, so no heat, electricity, phone bills, no equipment sitting there unused for 15 hours a day. Of course, each of us paid for that instead. We each had work laptops (mine was purchased by my employer, though I also could have purchased my own and the employer would have paid me $50 a month for my using my own machine – given that the machine I needed at the time was about $1700, and it would have taken almost 3 years to pay off a machine, which was also about the time I’d need to replace it, it didn’t make sense for me to buy my own.

    I had high-speed internet, so I got Vonage for long distance calls, and was able to expense that (it was less expensive than the phone company’s long distance).

    My co-workers weren’t located in the metro area, either. We had people scattered across four states, sometimes more. Occasionally we’d meet at the boss’s apartment downtown, or at a work site somewhere.

    WE did have daily scheduled conference calls. I had twice-a-week scheduled calls with my boss about how I was doing on various projects. We also had monthly calls with our CEO to see how we were doing. We were allowed mileage and a cell phone allowance. The dress code was friday casual run amok – I did find that on days when I had more customer interactions scheduled, it helped to dress above my typical shorts or sweat pants level.

    We also tracked our time, to the tenth of an hour, so we knew what we could bill folks. And so our employer knew what we were doing. We used our own products to do it, so that was a relatively cheap project. And it provided us pre-populated databases for testing and the like.

    During that time I was able to housebreak (for the most part) two puppies, get kids back and forth to various destinations, and handle doctor’s appointments and the like. We promised a 30-minute first-level response time, and a 2-hour higher-level response time, so if I was away from my computer, I just had to let one of my co-workers know to monitor the incoming mailbox, and that was it.

    I was more productive, got a lot of work done, and had very few of those “side conversations” that are likely to crop up in the lunch room or water cooler or whatever. But the converse was also true. It was incredibly lonely. I knew the sound of my co-worker’s voices, but I never met more than half of them face-to-face.

    Of course, that employer went the way of the dodo a few years ago. Some of us caught on with other employers, and some of us were considered a bit weird having held “work from home” jobs for over three years…

    • February 27, 2013 at 9:33 am
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      Thanks for that, John. Good point about the sidebar conversations. For all of the accusations I read in the press of people working from home spending their time goofing off, nobody mentions these sidebar conversations, which are a form of workplace goof-off, and can be very distracting at times themselves if it gets out of control.

      In 2007 or thereabouts, I was on a conference call and couldn’t hear it over the spirited non-work related discussion that was going on in the office. I put the phone on mute and yelled out, “Hey, I’m on a call. It sounds like a damn tavern in here!” Years later, they still talk about that.

      In the project management training I’m taking right now, the trainer commented that on average, you get 6-6.5 hours of actual work out of an employee putting in an 8-hour day at the office–due to conversations, smoke breaks, bathroom breaks, and the like. And he said that when you budget work hours on a project, you have to account for that–not to just take the number of hours on a project, then divide it by 8 and by the number of people to get the number of days it will take to complete. He said to divide by 6 instead.

  • February 27, 2013 at 10:08 am
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    I’m going to pass along the “telework week” idea to my management. I’m doubly blessed – I get to work at home two days a week, as does everyone else in my company. That puts the average VPN load at 40% instead of 20%. I’m not sure it has ever been tested at close to 100%.

    • February 27, 2013 at 12:26 pm
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      I’ve heard of either Chaos Monkey or something similar. That’s exactly the idea–make the system fail while you’re watching, deal with it then, make it strong enough that you don’t have to deal with it then, and then whoever’s on call can deal with the problem correctly, rather than under pressure.

      And regarding the VPN, I would say testing it at 100% is vital–then you know if anything falls over if it sustains that load, and it’s also good to know if it can sustain that load for a full 8 hours. Then you can decide if you need to stagger workdays (having the people who keep farmer’s hours start at 4 AM, and night owls like me start at noon) or buy more equipment.

  • February 27, 2013 at 8:59 pm
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    I passed along the “telework week” idea to my director, and then the disaster recovery manager. I’ll see if it flies. I’m not expecting it to happen next week.

    • February 27, 2013 at 9:46 pm
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      Sounds like a reasonable expectation to me. 🙂

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