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.


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.

Comments are disabled for this post