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.
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.