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Remote Control

How to captain the good ship enterprise when so many of your crew are working remotely - By Tracy Mayor.

As the IS director at a small, fast-moving consultancy, Matt Pardo executes the usual daily tasks required to manage technology workers in the 21st century. But looking over the tops of cubicles isn't one of them. Seventy-five percent of Pardo's direct reports work somewhere other than he does, and even he isn't in what he calls his "office office" every day.

His scattered workforce doesn't faze Pardo—as long as the work is completed, he doesn't particularly care where it's being done. But he acknowledges that's a mind-set that might take traditional managers a while to embrace. "It boils down to a control issue. There are a lot of managers who only feel comfortable being able to talk to [their employees] and see their work every day," he says. "You have to manage by objective instead. That old management style will have to go away."

In evolving his management style, Pardo says he was careful to increase phone and e-mail communication with his direct reports to make up for their infrequent visits in person. And when his team does get together, Pardo says that as a remote worker himself (he's in North Carolina; company headquarters is in Austin, Texas), he tends to be more sympathetic with people's travel woes.

It's no surprise that Pardo's company, TManage, is willing and able to embrace a scattered workforce: The company specializes in managing remote-work programs for corporations. But it's clear that at more and more companies, offsite work is becoming ubiquitous, thanks to a number of converging trends, including cheaper portable equipment and a tighter labor market. And an ongoing organizational focus on customer retention and globalization is forcing businesses to rethink the concepts of 9-to-5 workdays and office-bound employees.

The idea of letting your star programmer do her magic from home one day a week may not strike you as particularly radical. But it's a step that is leading to a corporatewide shift in thinking about and managing workers. In fact, remote-work proponents like the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) prefer the use of the term telework to the older telecommute because the former emphasizes the strategic nature of offsite work arrangements.

"Telecommuting was an accommodation, a convenient alternative to commuting," explains ITAC President John Edwards, also CEO and executive director of TeleworkNetwork, an Arlington, Va., consultancy. "Telework is a business strategy, and that's easier to sell to executives." Indeed, business leaders are becoming more enamored of remote working's bottom-line benefits—reduction of real estate expenses, increases in employee productivity and retention, and adoption of a dispersed, results-oriented corporate culture that fits with today's global business goals.

Management Challenge
Still, IT executives shouldn't buy in to the promise of telework without at least being aware of its potential pitfalls. For example, in the

Internal Revenue Service's office of information resources management in New Carrollton, Md., remote workers who were assigned to generic workstations on days when they were in the office struggled initially with incompatibilities between their laptops and docking station software. And at the Marasco Newton Group, an Arlington, Va., IT consultancy, teleworkers sometimes opt to return to full-time office life because they miss the interaction with their coworkers or find their spouse and children can't cope with a home-office arrangement. And other companies report that project deadlines occasionally slip when IS employees first begin teleworking and find self-motivation to be more difficult than they anticipated.

So what's the secret to effectively managing, measuring and motivating IS workers you can't see? Within IS, it's important to pick the right positions. (Hint: programming at home works great, but running cable is pretty much an in-office procedure.) Choose both workers and managers who are good communicators willing to embrace a results-oriented work style. Use technology where it will help, such as teleconferencing and instant messaging, and work around or find solutions for its pitfalls (lack of bandwidth is the number-one challenge remote workers face, managers say). Finally, support remote endeavors with clear, fair, companywide policies that spell out simply what is expected of all employees and managers, remote, onsite or otherwise.

IT Does It Better
For instance, CIOs are beginning to use telework as a way to provide 24/7 network coverage without having to maintain a permanent second and third work shift, observes Jonathan Poe, vice president of Meta Group's executive directions practice in Burlingame, Calif. "It's all about working smarter as an IT organization. Before, the system administrator would have to drive in at night or on the weekend whenever anything came up," Poe says. "Now you can set up a home office with network administration capabilities and save somebody the two hours of drive time."

Telework-savvy managers say many IS jobs lend themselves nicely to an offsite arrangement. "IT workers are classic knowledge workers, with a lot of concentration and creativity in their work, and knowledge workers make great teleworkers," says Joseph Roitz, a former IT manager who is now director of AT&T's companywide telework program.

Even better, IS workers and their managers are often able to more easily navigate one of the tough turns in telework—determining how much work is being done offsite and how well it's being done. "Other groups have struggled with getting goals, objectives and measures into place," Roitz says, "but the IT world already has a lot of emphasis on timelines, budgets and deliverables, and those all help when it comes time to telework."

IS employees who want to telework tend to need more access to different applications and databases than the general office population. "They do need access to the same software they have in the office, database administration tools and development software, and those kinds of things," observes TManage's Pardo of his remote IS workforce. TManage maintains a virtual private network that gives offsite workers the same access to the company's internal network that they get in the office while still ensuring as secure an environment as possible.

Several telework executives pointed out that IS employees are also more able than their noncomputer-savvy colleagues to troubleshoot problems with hardware, software and communications connections. On the flip side, IS workers may be slightly more apt than the working populace at large to have trouble with the one element managers say is essential to a good remote-work agreement: constant interpersonal communication. "They tend not to exchange a lot of e-mail because they're hard at work," says Roitz.

Some companies combat the problem by publishing guidelines that specify just how quickly offsite employees are expected to respond to phone calls, e-mail and the like. Others don't get so formal but do try to remind quieter workers that they need to compensate for lost water-cooler moments. "The biggest challenge is not having those hallway conversations, especially when you're moving as fast as we are," concedes Frank Ianna, president of AT&T Network Services, based in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Remote Technology
Oftentimes, managers say, technology can help the communication process along. Basic e-mail and voice mail systems are often all that's needed to stay in touch, though some workers and their remote teammates swear by instant messaging (and just as many others seem to loathe it).

Disparate team members often rely on whatever software tools were already part of the work culture—including LAN- or Web-based meeting and team-management packages, Lotus Notes databases or project management software—to stay updated while out of sight. Though videoconferencing and other high-end technologies are required sparingly, if at all, some teleworkers, like those at the Global Outsourcing Group at Unisys Corp., based in Bluebell, Pa., rely on teleconferencing services, which allow any employee to easily book ad hoc or regularly scheduled telephone meetings over the company's phone system.

Management Matters
How can and should managers effectively supervise offsite workers? Some executives insist your management team is already in trouble if individuals have to adapt their management style to accommodate teleworkers. The reason? Good managers in forward-thinking companies should already be using a results-driven management style for all employees, internal or otherwise.

"We use communications and information technology to work together, whether someone is two floors away or 2,000 miles away," points out Ianna. "Remote communication is a given today. If you can't manage and work remotely, you're not going to be successful."

Hoteling worker Deborah Bense, a program analyst with the IRS's information resources management office, says her manager had to change her style very little to accommodate remote workers. "Management needs to trust their employees. We're all adults; we can get the work done," says Bense. "My manager is very flexible. We talk or exchange e-mail every day, but she knows that if she asks me to do something it's going to get done." Though Bense had worked for her manager for short periods before she began working remotely, she has 25 years of service with the IRS. "I guess that counts as something of a track record," she says with a laugh.

Training Is Key
Not all companies may be in a position to easily mimic the success of AT&T and the IRS, which offer extensive classroom and print materials to train managers on telework, and handpick managers who are most likely to succeed. "A lot of companies haven't trained their supervisors," says John Girard, a vice president research director at Gartner's Network Center in Stamford, Conn. "I get calls every week from companies that think they have technical issues, but what they have are serious management issues. A good supervisor can make it work, but the program will fail if the supervisor isn't enthusiastic."

Managers who are best at handling teleworkers and other remote employees tend to be good at scheduling and managing work assignments and identifying workflow problems before they turn critical, HR directors say. Managers who aren't as strong in project management may underestimate or overestimate project time lines for remote workers, which can result in missed deadlines.

Dun & Bradstreet, like many other companies with formal telework programs, requires employees to put in at least some time in an office—three to six months minimum—before embarking on a remote-work program. Time in the office for the business research company based in Murray Hill, N.J., allows managers to assess employees' strengths, weaknesses and work habits in person. It helps employees experience a company's unique corporate culture and work ethic firsthand. And it allows team members to get to know one another before embarking on an e-mail and phone-based relationship.

Companies that haven't yet taken the telework plunge should set up a pilot program first to flush out bugs and bumps in the system, says Fred Ewald, vice president of Ewald Associates, an Ivyland, Pa., consultancy that has worked with the Marasco Newton Group and the IRS. For example, IRS Information Resources Management has just completed a hoteling pilot that encompassed 20 IS workers and raised several issues that will need to be addressed before the program is rolled out to a larger population.

"The biggest challenge has been working through the IT issues that did arise," says Adriane Thormahlen, senior program analyst at the IRS. Nonstandard configurations of laptops caused confusion at times, remote access to e-mail didn't always function properly, and the help desk wasn't adequately staffed and briefed to deal with remote problems as swiftly as management would like. "That's why we did the pilot, to iron out those technical problems. This will all go under lessons learned," says Thormahlen.

Telework's Hidden Pluses
Experienced telework executives say the hidden and often unexpected organizational benefits of offsite programs far outweigh the temporary inconvenience of setting them up. Being forced to document and disseminate decisions, says AT&T's Roitz, is a discipline nearly all work teams—internal or dispersed—could use. "When you write something on a white board during an ad hoc meeting with a client, it's gone," he points out. "Being virtual is actually a plus. If forces you to create a document trail." Judging workers by their performance, rather than their demeanor in the office, can likewise have the unexpected consequence of allowing otherwise overlooked employees to shine. "People used to be measured in some respects by how well they fit into an organization, how well they sat around the coffee machine and chatted," observes Bob Evans, president of global outsourcing at Unisys. "When the evaluation criteria is different, you may find you have some stars you didn't know about. Sally may wind up being a far better performer at home than she was in the collegial atmosphere of an office."

And allowing—or finally even encouraging—employees to work remotely can be the first important step to truly becoming a corporation with the global mind-set that's so in vogue in the new millennium. The ethos of telework—and the wide-area infrastructure it demands—can spur a company on toward becoming more decentralized and closer to its customers, says Meta Group's Poe. Once companies are comfortable with the idea of remote workers, they'll be more willing to make moves like putting a satellite office near a key customer site or dispatching a work team to serve as onsite project managers inside a business partner's walls.

That global perspective may be all well and good for the 10,000-foot view, but proponents say the best reason for managers to support teleworking is a down-to-earth one: It keeps workers happy and loyal. "We wanted to improve our ability to recruit and retain IT personnel," says the IRS's Thormahlen, "and we found that the ability to telecommute was among the top demands, especially in IT."

Tracy Mayor is a freelance writer specializing in business, technology and parenting topics. She can be reached at - April 1, 2001.