Telecommuting Has Benefits, Too

Recently I’ve run across a few articles (on Hacker News and elsewhere) about the drawbacks of telecommuting. I agree that there are drawbacks, but I believe that they can be counterbalanced by the benefits under the right circumstances.

The Right Circumstances

Not every person is cut out to telecommute, and not every job is suitable to be performed remotely. Furthermore, there are many tools available to make telecommuting much more effective.

The single most important traits for a telecommuter to have are strong writing and comprehension skills. There are no two ways about it; a telecommuter is going to engage in a lot of written communication. You can’t yell over the cubicle wall to ask for a quick clarification. Since they are not physically present, any communication with them requires a small amount of overhead. Thus it’s important that each bit of communication with the telecommuter be clear and concise.

The ever-present communication overhead implies that jobs which require more frequent communication are less suitable for telecommuters. The best jobs are those in which a lot of “heads down” work needs to be done. These are the kinds of jobs where even if the employee were physically present, they’d want an office with a door that shuts tight. Many nuts-and-bolts, back-end software engineering jobs fall into this category. For instance, writing a device driver requires large chunks of up-front communication, but after that it requires deep concentration and few interruptions — perfect for a telecommuter. Other jobs, such as project management, require constant communication and incur a much greater telecommuting overhead.

Finally, tools are instrumental in making telecommuting work. In a software shop, a good Wiki system allows for collaborative documentation. A bug/feature tracking system helps keep everyone in sync on priorities. File sharing, phone conferencing, source control, desktop sharing, VPN systems — all of these are absolutely critical to enable a telecommuter to do their job.

The benefits of telecommuting only apply fully when the above circumstances are met. It’s easy to see how telecommuting could leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth if it was attempted with the wrong person, job, or tools.

The Benefits

Better documentation. One of the major drawbacks of working with someone far away is that you can’t walk up to their desk and pick their brain. Sure, you can call them, but once you’ve resigned yourself to the overhead of a phone call, more likely than not you’ll just send an email or instant message. But there’s a hidden benefit to this: more knowledge ends up written down. Informally, you end up with more knowledge in your email or IM history. More formally, you have more opportunities to write documentation. A good telecommuter knows when an email thread has become overgrown and needs to be dumped into a Wiki article.

Higher throughput. For software jobs that require extended periods of deep concentration, telecommuting can often provide the best work environment. This can require some effort on the remote employee’s part (e.g. establishing a no-interruption rule with the kids), but when it’s pulled off successfully it can be orders of magnitude better than being cramped up in a cubicle next to a salesperson who’s constantly on the phone.

More hours. The lack of a commute and the ease of making a quick lunch at home save a lot of time for a telecommuter. When a doctor’s appointment comes up in the middle of the day, it’s easier to justify working late to make up for it, instead of taking personal time off.

More flexible pay. The market value for a talented engineer differs between, say, the Bay Area and Wisconsin. The cost of living and market demand vary drastically between different geographical areas. A business in an expensive metropolis can save tons of money by hiring a telecommuter from an area where it’s cheaper to live. This can benefit the telecommuter as well, if the business, for instance, splits the difference between the local and remote market salaries with the employee.

Conclusions

In no way am I trying to prescribe telecommuting as a panacea or some kind of magical efficiency booster. But, as a telecommuter myself, I have seen it work out really well firsthand, and I feel the need to point out the fact that it does have a few tangible benefits. Like any other business decision, though, it shouldn’t be chosen without careful thought and planning.

9 Comments

  • I stopped reading after the first paragraph because of the high contrast you have going on here.

  • @JM:

    I get a fair number of comments to that effect, and I feel for you, but I personally prefer white on black text so I think I’ll leave things this way. ^_^

    If you find yourself frequently coming across content that you have to overlook due to the presentation, I highly recommend Readability (https://www.readability.com/). With one click, you can have any site’s style changed to exactly what you find most readable.

  • I do get a little better throughput when working at home. However I still get interrupted quite a bit with people calling me. That’s why I sometimes don’t tell everyone I am working from home. That way I can manage when I get back to people trying to get in touch.

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  • Couldn’t agree more. I work from home for a company in another country, and I love the freedom and peace and quiet I get whilst I work, communicating primarily with my employer through skype (no call charges!). One thing I will say is that the individual must have good time-keeping and personal motivation. It can be very easy to get distracted with “other things”.

  • Tom & Tim wrote:

    It sounds like all the benefits of telecommuting are simply band-aids for a broken office space.

    If you have people walking up to others’ desks and picking their brains, then yeah, your throughput is going to be crippled (reason #2), and they’re not going to have things written down (reason #1). But if you have people calling you on the phone at home all day, that’s no better. You’re still not going to be able to achieve flow.

    Reasons #3 and #4 sound like “my commute sucks”. All commutes suck, but the quality of the jobs I’ve held has been directly proportionate to the shortness of their commutes. A 5-minute commute led to a great job, and a 20-minute commute led to a lousy one. (I seriously don’t understand commuting further than 20 minutes; it’s not that hard to find a good job and good housing in the same vicinity.) Why is it hard to justify leaving for a doctor’s appointment during the day from an office (and working late to make up for it), and not from home?

    Wouldn’t it be easier to just loan your manager a copy of “Peopleware”, and get a job that’s not 50 miles from home?

  • anonymous wrote:

    Why would you link to the hacker news front page instead of the specific articles you referred to?

  • […] more here: Telecommuting Has Benefits, Too – Mezeskedonia Related Reading: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity“To combine enormous […]

  • @Tom & Tim: I don’t know where you live, but a 5 minute commute is not possible and a 20 minute commute would be Shangri-La here in Toronto!

    The average commute for us is 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. I’d love to have 2 extra hours in my day…

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