The Telecommuting Genie Isn't Going Back In The Bottle; Here's How To Strengthen Its Magic

Marissa Mayer caused a huge stir when she decided to end the telecommuting policy at Yahoo but, make no mistake about it, telecommuting is here to stay. In fact, thanks to long commutes, dual-career families, work-life balance, and continued advancements in remote videoconferencing technologies, telecommuting is only going to become more and more common.

As a manager, that means you’ve got to focus on the right metrics to ensure your team is more focused on productivity than The Price is Right. First and foremost, it isn’t about "where" the work takes place but whether the work is actually getting done. To avoid having your employees slack off while working from home, here are some tips to help you manage your telecommuting workforce:

Hire the right talent.
It all starts with having the right talent in place. During the hiring process, look for previous examples of their ability to work with a high level of autonomy while still hitting their deliverables. They should have a high motor and possess the ability perform without being under the microscope that normally comes with being in a corporate office.

Manage to objectives instead of just watching the clock.
The way we work has changed. Clinging to outdated management philosophies that focus on "putting in your hours" are a thing of the past. Instead of watching the clock, you’ve got to be more concerned with what’s getting done. I know this is often a slippery slope and doesn’t apply to every situation, but in my experience the hours always have a way of working themselves out. I’ve been lucky enough to work for managers that allowed us to use our discretion when it came to managing our schedules and we found a way to meet our individual and organizational objectives.

Trust your employees until they give you a reason not to.
I once had a boss ask me to document what I worked on while working from home. Talk about a morale killer. If I was going to slack off, I didn’t need to work from home to do it. All I needed was an Internet connection, landline telephone, or my smartphone and I could still watch hours of streaming videos or spend the day kibitzing on the phone with old friends without having to leave my desk. Instead of trusting me to focus on the tasks at hand, the manager decided to focus on documenting tasks—a little outdated and off the mark if you ask me.

Embrace the right technologies.
In the case of Yahoo, technology was ultimately what led to the end of their telecommuting program. Upon reviewing data on employee logins to their Virtual Private Network (VPN), Mayer reached the conclusion that employees weren’t checking in enough. To decrease the likelihood that the same thing will happen at your organization, the technology you choose has to have the right checks and balances and be compared against whatever guidelines and objectives you’ve put in place.

Managing a telecommuting workforce.
Will Yahoo’s decision to end their telecommuting program ultimately pay off? Only time will tell. However, I find it really hard to imagine that companies are going to be able to put the telecommuting genie back in the bottle. Videoconferencing and other technologies are only going to get better and commuting times are only going to get longer. That means it’s going to be up to you, as a manager, to make sure your team is engaged in something more than sitting on their living room couch.

What strategies or tactics have you found to be most helpful when managing a remote workforce? Tell us about it in the comments.

—Shawn Graham is a marketing and brand strategist for startups and small businesses. Find Shawn at or continue the conversation on Twitter.

[Genie Lamp: Daniel Wiedemann via Shutterstock]

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  • Shannon Lewis

    I agree 100% with the managing by objectives.  It's hard for me to understand how telecommuters at Yahoo could have gotten away with no logging in for months.  That says to me their managers where goofing off as well.  Seems like the problem runs much deeper than telecommuting.  

    I have worked remotely since 2000.  I have always believed in doing what is needed to get the job done.  Sometimes that means extra hours, or making up for time missed.  I currently work for a company that is 100% distributed.  We use google+ hangouts for our daily checkins and internal meetings, IRC, google docs etc. This allows us to hire the best employees for our needs and not be limited to a geographic region.  We believe this is the best way to attract good talent.  We also manage by objectives so we know folks are making smart choices.  

    I recently wrote a blog on my thoughts as a telecommuter before the big Yahoo announcement.  If you're interested you can read it here:

  • FlexJobs

    I think you're right-on with documenting tasks. There are definitely better ways to go about assessing employees' performance. I've been working from home for the past three years for and instead of doing this sort of nit-picking approach, we're all asked to share our accomplishments and goals at weekly staff meetings. Everyone gets a chance to talk about what they've been working on and what's on their docket for the next week, and it helps to bring our team together and better understand how we all fit into the grand scheme of things, rather than treating us as people who can't be trusted to work simply because we work from home. It's uplifting rather than demoralizing, and these small shifts in management strategies can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of telecommuting programs!

  • The Content Factory

    We've managed people in an office setting as well as a remote setting and the challenges are mostly the same. The expectations for the people you work for need to be results based and communication is incredibly important regardless of the setting. In some ways, working with people remotely forces us to be that much more careful about how we're communicating. Technology like Skype and Google Calendar make it that much easier.

  • Shawn

    Thanks for the comment, Content Factory. Agreed. Focusing on results definitely makes sense in general but especially when you have people working from home. It will be interesting to see what else is on the horizon regarding collaborative technologies.