When CEO Marissa Mayer stopped Yahoo’s telecommuting program, she said she was not against telecommuting, but the program at Yahoo had gotten out of control. There were stories of employees who had not been seen in years and other stories of people who had set up side businesses and were working on them during the day while ostensibly working for Yahoo. The implication of this was that employees could no longer be trusted, and checks and balances needed to be put in place.
Trust and Verify
When you are selecting which people and jobs should be eligible for telecommuting at your company, there are a number of things that must be considered.
- First, does the work to be done lend itself to telecommuting? There are many jobs that are well suited to it, yet many are not. Clearly, a Starbucks barista cannot telecommute regardless of his desire to do so.
- Is the person well-suited for telecommuting? If an individual has had to be micro-managed in the office because of poor work habits, then she is unlikely to be a good telecommuter. These are the people most likely to get distracted and be unproductive working from home.
- Is the company well suited for telecommuting? Some companies perform highly collaborative work that requires “face time” to enhance the creative process. Of course, with the proper use of technology, that face time can still occur even if team members are spread around the globe. Whether the company has the technology and the culture for telecommuting are important considerations.
- Lastly, do you trust the workers who will be telecommuting? Trust has to be there, because in reality, even with the technology available, you cannot be there to see them working. You can try to micromanage them by requiring frequent emails, text messages, or even watching activity if the person is logged into a central system. But I know from experience that this does not work well, especially with someone who is a good telecommuter. They end up feeling like they have the boss standing right over their shoulder, and it can distract them from being really productive.
New Ways to Abuse Trust
With the current state of technology and easy access to the Internet, some workers have found creative ways to abuse the trust they’ve been given. One example was an employee for a telecom firm who actually outsourced his job to China. He paid the outsourcer 1/5th of his six-figure income to actually perform his work. You’d have to grudgingly admire this kind of entrepreneurial spirit if the guy had actually done something constructive with his time. Instead, he surfed the Internet playing games and watching videos all day.
His example should act as a warning for other employers. With the availability of cheap labor in China, India, and even within the U.S., employees may actually find ways to outsource their jobs. Is this something employers should be concerned about?
Outsourcing: a Real Concern
There are a number of reasons why employers should be concerned about the possibility of an employee outsourcing his/her work.
- It raises security concerns. If employees are outsourcing their work, your company secrets may not be so secret anymore. An employee who shares his/her work with someone in China is offering information to a company or person that you have not vetted on confidentiality. You may have done a background check on your employee, but you surely haven’t done one on the sub-contractor. Depending on the nature of the work that is being shared, your most important company secrets may be compromised.
- It makes your reward system meaningless. We compensate, reward, and pat people on the back for the work they do, not for the work someone else has done.
- It raises the question of what they are actually doing with their time. They may be working on something else on the side, and that side business may be using your company’s resources. Perhaps your employee has even created a competing business that is now using your customer list.
There are several tips on how to prevent these kinds of situations.
- Make sure there are periodic audits or checks on the work that is being done.
- Make sure electronic connections are reviewed, and that the right devices are being connected at the right times.
- Look at when the work is being produced. If an employee is always producing their work after midnight, you might want to look more closely at his/her schedule.
- Have someone else do the work for a short period. There is some value in having someone take time off.
- Periodically quiz someone on the work that’s produced. If they haven’t done it, they might not be able to tell you about it.
- Require them to actually show up on occasion and work in the office.
There are probably many other ways to control the risks associated with telecommuting. Just be sure to balance the effort with your company culture. Implying that your employee is a thief is a good way to ruin your working relationship. Starbucks learned that lesson several years ago when they removed the pockets from the baristas’ aprons because someone was caught pocketing money from the till. It sent the wrong message about the level of trust between the company and its employees, a message that was quickly corrected. Next time you get a coffee, take a look and you will see that the pockets are back on the aprons.
I read your article with great interest and I liked how you put the problem, analytically. Confidence is really the most important issue when it comes to telecommuting programs. But even if all precautions are taken, problems can occur. People are not robots and cannot be programmed to act only in algorithms and just do their job and that’s all. Telecommuting work involves a number of issues related to people’s feelings, their health, their aspirations, etc.
Even if it sounds very tempting for many people to work from home, it is not that easy! As you said in the article, there are all sorts of distractions that can affect someone who works from home as part of a telecommuting program. In my opinion, not all people are suitable for this kind of work. It takes strength of character, a strong personality, motivation, and certain value systems that must guide people in order for them to maintain self-discipline.
I was very interested in your article, especially since I work from home and I work with several companies at the same time. Even if I am a freelancer and I choose to work from home so that I can take care of my children, this does not mean it is easy. There must be a high degree of trust between the company and its employees or contractors. But at the same time, I think it’s just as important that the employee have a certain type of personality to be able to do this kind of work.
When an employer decides to allow employees to work in telecommuting programs, their recruitment should be governed by certain criteria. Employees should be selected after conducting personality tests, which can reveal whether or not they have the necessary qualities for this kind of work. Trust is extremely important in this type of work because a company might have confidentiality issues to consider. I think that only an employee with some experience in the company, someone who has proven effectiveness in time management and loyalty, is suitable for this kind of work.