07 November 2007

Many employers that used to be aghast at the idea of not being able to see their employees every morning are now a little more open to relaxing their grasp and allowing their employees to work from home. There have been many articles written about the benefits of telecommuting: employee happiness, less distractions, and other benefits. I've read several articles on how to avoid burnout (written from the perspective of the employee) and the other many perils and temptations of telecommuting, but I've not read much in the way of advice for employers.

Having worked as a telecommuter in the past, I wish that some employers had been more aware of their impact on their distant employees. Here is some of my advice for employers thinking about hiring telecommuting developers.

  • Staying in touch is important.

    If an employee has ever worked from home or off-site, this is already obvious. We know that to keep our employer happy, we have to be available when you need us. It works both ways. If we have a question about something and it's impossible to get in touch with the employer (or worse, when we do get in touch, our employer seems to be annoyed at the interruption) then our job becomes more difficult. This is especially important when you're developing software. Questions may come up that need immediate and thorough answers.

  • Keep the telecommuter in the decision-making loop.

    This especially applies to software developers, because it is important for us to feel we can influence what the company decides to implement. I've worked for companies in the past where the sales department was also the development department.
    "We grow our market share by 2% if we add a feature that cooks the users breakfast!"
    It's generally a bad practice to promise a customer a feature you don't have yet (or, worse, sell software based on ephmereal promises of future development) but it's infinitely frustrating for a developer that wasn't there to mercifully kill the idea while it was still in it's infancy.

  • Have regular face-to-face gatherings.

    When a company is spread all over the country (or the globe) it's sometimes difficult to encourage the type of office comradery that you like to see in an office environment. If your departments never see each other, your developers will begin to associate your company with "the voice." It's like sitting in a room while a person behind a curtain dictates your never-ending "To Do" list. Workers become more and more disconnected over time until it hits critical mass and they either quit or are fired. We're human, and humans depend upon face-to-face interaction.

  • Regular progress reports are not evil.

    If you are open to telecommuting, you have enough trust in your employees that you don't feel the need to stand over their shoulder and watch work they're working on. This is commendable. However, the extreme opposite is just as bad. If an employee doesn't feel that you're in the slightest bit interested in their work, then their work may suffer. I don't mean to suggest that you need to micro-manage from afar: just keep up to date on what they're doing and reward a job well done, just as you would if that person were working in your office.