While telework and telecommuting—usually just different terms for the same practice—have been discussed widely for years, rarely have they been practiced successfully. In fact, many mainframe-centric companies have had distributed employees for decades, allowing the best experts to support customers worldwide. Still, some organizations and managers steadfastly resist even considering this job-enhancing flexibility, no matter the benefits to them and their employees.
Why? Two main reasons emerge:
1. Explicit or implicit reliance on kindergarten-style management that values “all in their places with bright shiny faces” above matching work environment to real-world requirements and preferences
2. A lack of understanding of modern mainframe connection technologies
Of course, for telework to work, it requires attitudinal and technical accommodation. The larger challenges are sometimes softer issues—cultural and mental—rather than technology problems. Starting with organizational issues, consider the following tips to address cultural and technical stumbling blocks:
• Don't improvise. Establish consistent long-term telework policies covering technology and personnel issues in terms of facilities/services provided, costs subsidized, connectivity, security, work hours, office workflow, cross-training and task backup, home/office days balance, salaries, evaluations, promotions, etc.
• Plan and manage telework implementation. For inspiration, read case studies of successful projects.
Integrate telework with disaster and business-continuity procedures. Periodically assess progress and problems from worker/manager viewpoints.
• Educate employees, clients/customers, suppliers on telework plans and goals. Internally, be clear and objective about who’s eligible. Support those not eligible, and don't create disparities between in-office and remote staff.
• Host occasional all-hands team or company-wide virtual meetings, allowing unstructured Q&A with managers/executives, to ensure that everyone has the same correct information. An added benefit is people getting to know colleagues they may never meet or even work with directly.
• Avoid implicit/explicit deprecation of invisible employees. Evaluate results and productivity rather than face time.
• Ensure top-to-bottom compliance with mandated telework procedures. Don't let unfounded claims of team/project uniqueness undermine telework benefits and avoid “studying” telework to death.
• Creatively, fairly and consistently subsidize work-related employee home-office expenses. These might include added or enhanced Internet connectivity, an extra telephone line or added services.
• Use telework to recruit best-qualified staff without requiring relocation, and to retain key employees who are moving.
• Develop new and flexible management skills to evaluate objectives and output, rather than employee visibility.
• Compensate for distance by formalizing critical but casual hallway and water cooler communication channels.
• Be a good corporate citizen by supporting a greener workforce. In urban areas, increased telework improves traffic and reduces demands on infrastructure, and therefore government spending.
• Provide enterprise-quality instant messaging, audio and video teleconferencing, integrated home/office telephone, and email services.
• Use reliable VPN allowing split tunneling, so local network devices, such as printers and file servers, are available while remotely connected.
• Provide network/mainframe session manager to simplify employee logon and reduce impact of connection interruptions. A System z remote computing benefit, of course, is 3270 data stream efficiency.
• Within practical limits, enable BYOD—bring your own device—for maximum employee productivity and flexibility.
• Understand the promise and reality of cloud computing. Evaluate it for linking office and remote staff/resources, enforcing security/backup policies, reducing employee hosted/maintained resources, etc.
For employees looking to work remotely, consider these tips as well:
• Craft supportive workspace with ergonomic furniture, etc. Don't suffer a permanent "temporary" or just good-enough setup.
• Use large or multiple monitors to enhance productivity, perhaps including a docking station or full-size monitor connected to a laptop.
• Create professional voicemail greetings on home and mobile phones.
• Use robust communication/connectivity. A second broadband service will most likely cost less than commuting, and—even if rarely used—it prevents you from being unavailable at critical moments. Such incidents frequently cause peers or managers to grumble about telecommuting.
• Beware using bleeding-edge technology. Home office operation is mission-critical for you and your employer, so it isn't appropriate for experimentation. Consider using a second computer for testing/experimentation.
• Be secure by separating work from personal computing, running and updating quality anti-malware tools, and using appropriate encryption. Follow company computing policies, and don't let others use your work computer.
• Be reliable by using company backup tools supplemented by on-site procedures and offsite media.
• Have facility for sending and receiving files—encrypted, of course—that are too large to transmit via email. Examples include YouSendIt or Dropbox.
• "Go to work,” in whatever way works for you. Shaved/coiffed or not, dressed for success or in pajamas, have your mind 100-percent work-engaged and focused. Resist distractions such as personal email and general news updates. Emphasize to family and friends that working at home does not mean “at leisure.”
• Set limits. Working from home doesn't mean being available 24/7. Still, exploit it when inspiration strikes. Highlight how home access allows quick response to critical situations, and working when you might otherwise have taken sick days.
• Above all, don’t be invisible, inaccessible or mysterious. Accommodate time-zone issues and publicize predictable work hours with a regular lunch break. Let colleagues know about absences, and use informative “out-of-office” messages for email, instant messaging and telephone.
• Be flexible about short-notice requirements for office visits.
• Use connectivity to monitor system alerts and check for problems—perhaps on Sunday nights, checking for system misadventures that would make Monday morning a catastrophe.
• Keep your manager informed about projects, status, plans, needs and concerns—especially if your company has few teleworkers. Establish and revisit productivity measures.
• Learn colleagues' and managers' communications preferences and proactively provide information. Send good news as well as gotchas; avoid surprises. Share information, articles, links, pointers, thoughts and feedback. Engage the team by participating in meetings and discussions; emphasize your availability for voice/video teleconferencing. Take leadership opportunities.
• Stay on good terms with the company help desk and tech/network support staff. Make their lives easier by sharing responsibility for working technology, reporting problems clearly, and assisting in problem resolution.
• Seek occasional face-to-face team encounters and gatherings, especially when new people join. Meeting in person, dining and socializing greatly facilitate collaboration. Understand company/team culture and, of course, politics.
• Anticipate isolation and potential loneliness. Develop professional online and neighborhood/community contacts. Remember that at work, online and offline, you're not really alone.
• If appropriate, log your activities. No matter how productive you are, without seeing you every day, colleagues and managers might forget your contributions. You might even forget them, so a log will facilitate progress/status reports and be useful at reviews.
• Remain current, valuable and employable through continuing education, which is often available online.
• For health and sanity, walk around a bit every hour or two; stay well hydrated.
In addition to obvious employer savings, such as reduced office/power/heating/cooling expenses, federal and state tax breaks are sometimes available. Several organizations can help with planning, logistical and financial information for teleworkers, managers and organizations. One such program, Telework!VA, an initiative of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, assists companies in that state.
Ultimately, it's best to structure telework as a partnership benefiting workforce and employer. Success comes from joint objective analysis of personalities and work requirements.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.