Monday, March 31, 2008


When did conventions become conferences? Is there a difference between a conference and a convention? I don't know, but I can tell you that going to a conference is always a grueling affair. You wander around smiling from morning to night, you travel with colleagues about whom you learn more than maybe you wanted to, you yack with sales folks in the exhibit hall because you feel guilty that maybe they're feeling like getting a booth was a waste of time.

Perhaps I'm worrying too much about the feelings of the booth exhibitors.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Negotiating Telecommuting from the Start

In my experience, it's much easier to negotiate a telecommuting arrangement when you're already a valued employee, when you provide a unique and hard-to-duplicate service for your employer, or once you've proven yourself otherwise. At least, that's how it worked for me. But what about starting out a new job as a telecommuter, right from day one? I think it can work well, but it seems to me that there are some key factors that you may want to consider with your new manager before quitting your Real Office job and starting to dance around your home office in your slippers and underpants.

First, are there any other telecommuters in the organization now, or are you the guinea pig in a bold adventure that may not be a favorite of the powers that be? If there are other telecommuters, you should make one of your first courses of action to connect with those folks online and during on-site visits. If not, it's probably okay -- but you must be vigilant and visible to show all and sundry that your little experiment is a big success. And start recruiting other telecommuters, especially from the ranks of the long-standing Real Office workers.

Next, you'll want to have a specific agreement governing the telecommuting relationship, above and beyond any standard commitment letter that the employer may have for you to sign. I'd lay out all the things I've mentioned in the past -- communication expectations, reporting, weekly meeting stuff. But I'd also want to work out a pretty specific roadmap of my first six months with my manager so that we're both very clear as to what the heck I should be doing. Of course, that can and will change as business conditions and projects evolve, but I think it's pretty important that everyone understands what the day-to-day work is going to involve. That way, everyone can tell that you're accomplishing the things that they needed a person in your position to do in the first place.

I'd also want that roadmap shared up and down the food chain, so that my manager has buy in from his or her overlords, and my colleagues know what the heck I'm doing in wherever I am all day. Not only will they feel a little less like I'm just watching HGTV all day whilst they work, but they will also know why I'm pestering them for whatever inputs and outputs I'm hassling them about.

Another part of the roadmap: an onsite visit schedule for six months to a year out. Planning this stuff in advance will result in cheaper plane tickets and more time to develop a full visit agenda for your visits. But don't plan every bit of your telecommuter travel plan up front -- you should keep a couple of trips set aside for "emergencies" like division-wide strategy meetings and suchlike that may crop up as you go along.

Next on the list of things to spec out is hardware and software support: what will they provide, is there anything that you'll need training on, do you need to find a source of local tech support, are there tricks or trip-ups awaiting you? Hammer it all out before you all jump into a relationship that is going to be hard to deal with.

These are just off the top of my head. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff that I'm missing. Any suggestions, dear readers?

I Am Loving Alltop

Alltop is a new aggregator (I'm picturing an acquisitive alligator right now for some reason) from the great Guy Kawasaki. Even though they haven't yet discovered the magic of Stella Commute (maybe not enough readers? Whatever, tell your friends about me, kids!) this is really a great site. There is pretty much no junk in their listings -- if a blog is on there, it's good to look at.

Give it a try!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

In Case You're Wondering big a dork your devoted correspondent Stella is, here is proof positive. Scroll down and see if you can figure out which member of Love Will Torahs Apart (Again) Stella is. Here's a hint: She's the one who looks like the picture on the lower left side of this blog, but with X-ray specs. (Allergies, dontcha know.)

Yes, kids, this is what passes for a social life here in these parts. This is the level of social interaction that allows ol' Stella to contemplate returning to the shut in lifestyle. And this is the level of achievement that is most important to me: winning inflatable toast in a bar on a Monday night.

Because if it's called "Geeks Who Drink", surely even the shut-ins are welcome.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's All Right Here

This article from CIO Magazine really has it all. Read it and reap. It goes through a huge list of stuff to consider and cover when you're creating a telecommuting program, and like research on thousands of other works before, it notes that telecommuting isn't bad for the bottom line.

Good stuff.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Paltry Posting

Stella is sorry that so far this month, she has been a pretty lame poster. For some reason there are a lot of conferences and out of town commitments during the month of March. Frankly, Stella has a touch of madness this March, and it doesn't seem to involve basketball at any meaningful level.

Whatever, it all should return to normal soon. But in the meantime, Stella asks your indulgence. She has written some rather long and pithy posts, dear readers. Perhaps you should go back and re-read them to make sure that you haven't missed some key insight.

A Profile of Modern Philanthropy

From the New York Times, David Brooks writes about how people who want to do good today are really different from those who came before. This must be one of those generational things, because as a member of GenX, his description of the expectations and methods of younger people (50 and under) involved in charitable giving and action makes complete, no-questions-asked sense to me. Long-standing targets of philanthropy (higher ed, among others) would do well to turn this insight into practice. There are implications here for case statements, for asking, for stewardship, for all the information you might want to offer them as they make gift and volunteer decisions.

But of course, it all depends on who your donor base is, and where it's trending. And you might could ask them what they like and then give it to them.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Experts Agree: Telecommuting Is Good

Stella has complained in the past about some academic studies of telecommuting practice that were widely quoted and narrowly focused. Well, I'm pleased to report that I just finished reading a meta-analysis of a lot of telecommuting studies of more than 12,000 employees at various companies that presented some interesting findings that support your best and worst assumptions about telecommuting. The paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences" appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6 (November 2007).

Here's how it worked: The authors, Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison of Penn State, initially examined 212 studies and identified 46 peer reviewed papers and unpublished dissertations that met their criteria for inclusion. To be considered, the study had to test one of the twelve hypotheses they were considering and had to have measured a statistically significant effect on one of the twelve. They specifically excluded studies that just looked at people doing extra work at home in their spare time and those studies that included freelancers and contractors working off-site. They compiled all the data from all these studies to see if there was a measurable concordance amongst them, and they found out some interesting stuff.

Do telecommuters perceive a greater degree of autonomy? The studies that looked at this factor agree that, indeed, this is measurably the case. Does telecommuting reduce work-family conflict? Yes, yes it does. Are telecommuters more satisfied with their jobs? Yes. Do telecommuters perform their jobs better? Well, if you ask employees, their assessment is neutral, but if you ask their managers, the answer is yes. Does telecommuting prevent turnover? Yes. Does telecommuting reduce employee stress? Yes. Do telecommuters perceive diminished career prospects? No.

I don't think that anyone who actually telecommutes would be surprised by any of these results, but it's super-great to have a rigorous analysis across lots of strong studies to support what we all suspect.

However, there were a couple of surprises about the impact of telecommuting on relationships in the workplace. The authors looked at two hypotheses relating to this: Does the employee-manager relationship suffer under a telecommuting arrangement, and do employee-coworker relationships stink when people are in slippers? They also considered whether what they call "telecommuting intensity" has an effect on these factors (extreme telecommuting was 50% or more of the work time in a non-office setting, so more than 2.5 days a week).

On the employee-manager relationship, they found that telecommuting did NOT have a negative effect. In fact, it was correlated with a positive effect on this relationship. There are probably a number of reasons why this is so: generally the most driven and conscientious people are allowed to telecommute, telecommuting programs (if all is going right) have lots of reporting built in so managers may be more informed about what their telecommuters are up to and thus feel better about the whole thing. Moreover, telecommuting intensity did not worsen the relationship -- it had no effect on this point.

For relationships among coworkers the impact of telecommuting was neutral -- so in this kind of analysis, it means that some studies measured a negative effect and some measured a positive effect, and it all kind of balanced out in the end. But don't get excited yet. The authors reported that studies found the more you telecommute, the more negative impact there is on coworker relationships.

So what does it all mean? That research over the past 25-30 years generally supports all the good things that we all suspect about telecommuting. But now it's scientists saying it, not just people who want to wear slippers.

I think it also points clearly to a critical area for better practice: maintaining relationships with co-workers. Stella's going to give that one some thought to see if she might can come up with some strategies to experiment with.

DISCLAIMER: Stella is not a social scientist, nor has she ever played one on TV. She's just a gal who knows how to use indexes and photocopy articles from scientific journals at her local academic library. Honestly, when they got to the actual mathematical expression of the statistical findings my eyes glazed over, but they were kind enough to put it in words. Words I get.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Building a Culture of Telecommuting

Stella has mentioned this before but it bears repeating: a successful telecommuting program must be...

- Championed by powerful and influential leaders
- Company-wide
- Easily joined
- Quantitatively measured and analyzed
- Talked about

Let's take these factors in turn, shall we?

Getting your manager on your side is obviously important, as you won't be doing much work from home without his or her say so. But moving up the management food chain as far as is humanly possible (preferably to the C-level) is vital. Get the CIO to love telecommuting too. After all, everyone benefits when the server lad and/or lady can connect from wherever they may be to recover from unexpected ghosts in the machines. The fact that you use the same technology to work all day, every day, can be secondary to their desires for 99.99999% uptime (or at least nobody noticing downtime).

Oh, and make sure it's not just the lazy bozos who embrace telecommuting. Find ass-kicking departments that everyone wants to be like and get them on board.

Related to building enthusiasm at the highest possible level for telecommuting is the need to spread the joy of telecommuting far and wide within the organization. The more people who are doing it well, the better. Help your customers do it, too. Getting a wide variety of people up and running with an inexpensive webcam and a low-cost teleconferencing program is just so important. It widens your circle of "who it's easy to work with" and increases the likelihood that someone knows someone who is telecommuting. Then you're not such a freak and this style of working becomes part of the normal ways we do things around here.

Telecommuting is a privilege not a right, but it shouldn't be so elite that almost nobody can do it (see above). There should be certain hurdles to jump over (employee in good standing, detailed proposal explaining how the work will actually get done, agreement from manager) but after that, you should be able to just show up at IT and pick up a camera, instructions for using the VPN, and a pair of slippers. Of course, if you're in the vanguard of telecommuters at your company, you'll have to be the guinea pig for this, squeaking wildly as you work through issues with the firewall and what not. But once you get it all working, write a manual on how to make it work and hand it to those who come after you.

Before you roll out telecommuting to too many parts of the organization, it's important that you have a plan in place for measuring outcomes. Certainly every telecommuter should have measures about his actual work in place with his manager, and someone should check up on them to make sure they are having their manager-managee updates and that expectations are met. But you may also want to quantify who is logging into the VPN for how many hours a week, how many person-days are being worked offsite, number of meetings logged in your online meeting center, and so on. Figure out which metrics are important to you before you get started so you're sure to be measuring the stuff you care about, the stuff that will tell you whether or not your telecommuting program is working.

Finally, what's the point of having all this great data and all this work being done by happy employees unless you spread the word. Too often, people are afraid to talk about their telecommuting programs for fear that everyone will want to do it, or fear of people finding out that folks are goofing off in slippers or whatever. But you're running a great program with lots of proof that it works so make sure people know about it. Company newsletter, blog, website, anywhere you can do it you should be pitching stories about how awesomely telecommuting is going at your fine establishment.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Go UC Santa Cruz

Home of the Telecommuting Banana Slugs! Well, actually I don't know if the banana slugs telecommute, too, but they are taking some active steps to encourage more staff members to take advantage of their telecommuting programs.

I love how easy they make it sound: "...a computer with a high-speed connection and the appropriate software, a phone, any relevant files or paperwork, and a formal telecommuting agreement are all that's needed to work from home."

So simple, anyone can do it! Even Assistant Chancellors (and that's a pretty important job at a place like UCSC)!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Saving the Nation Through Telecommuting

Here's an op-ed from the Baltimore Sun (my old hometown newspaper!) that calls for more and better investment in broadband infrastructure. It brings up so many good points in favor of dramatically improving the speed of home access, I just hardly know where to start.

Okay, yes I do. This is my favorite: "According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a 10 percent rise in the number of workers telecommuting once a week would lead fuel use to drop by 1.2 million gallons per week."

Well, heck, in an age of energy insecurity where gas is a billion dollars a barrel (or $103, I forget the exact figures), it might could be that including telecommuting (and the bandwidth it takes to support it) in an energy plan is a good idea.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Flexible Work: Not Just for Secretaries Anymore

Stella has written in the past about how irritating some coverage of flexible work arrangements can be. You know, photos showing women working with children coloring quietly at their feet, stories trumpeting how great a company's policies are (especially for the three low-level staff members, usually women, who actually take advantage of them).


So from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Q & A with Lynette Horrell, a managing partner at Ernst & Young who, amazingly enough, also has children (she was one of the first woman partners with kids, apparently). Accountants have an unavoidable work-life conflict because of the "everybody has the same drop-dead deadline for their taxes" problem of their business. And while it isn't telecommuting specifically designed to make their employees' lives peaceful on a daily basis, it does allow people to work a ton of overtime when needed -- without totally abandoning their families or their lives. So their accountants can leave the office at six at night, chill with their familes, pets, rock climbing wall, or what-have-you until later, and then hit it for some overtime from their laptops later that night.

Although there is something a little depressing about this paragraph: "I love to ski. Talk about telecommuting. We just bought a house at Seven Springs, and we go up there on Friday night. I'll work Saturday while my family is skiing..." Ummm, Ms. Horrell, how exactly is this helping YOU explore your love of skiing?

Whatever, I'm just glad to see that it's working.

Monday, March 3, 2008

More on the Seductive Lure of Magic Fixes

If you don't believe me, check out what the Tom Peters blog had to say about hoping that embracing whatever management structure or fad you can find will actually cause functional change in your business. The conclusion: hard work is required.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Don't Bring Telecommuters Back to the Office...

...just because you can't think of any other way to make your business better. This piece from the WSJ reports on the recent news that several big telecommuting powerhouses (AT&T, HP, Intel, and some parts of the federal government) have been roping their telecommuters back into the office. Corporate spokesmodels cite reasons like, "We're trying to foster teamwork, and we feel that face-to-face is an important component," or, "We need to consolidate operations for greater efficiency." Ummm, right. Friends, I must tell you that anytime people start telling me that just structural changes will solve fiscal or cultural problems, it makes my Spidey-sense tingle. Because it's nuts.

Do you have communication problems? Are people not collaborating properly on projects? Surely if we're all in the same physical space, those problems will magically disappear!

Are people not working on things that might could make money? Let's get those people back to the home office double-quick, and their workloads will re-adjust to eliminate tasks and projects that don't positively affect the bottom line, lickety-split. They just need closer supervision, that's all.

If people don't work together well, just putting them in bullpen-style floorplans and making them show up there at the same time every day is not going to help. Instead, you have to do the hard work of culture change. Like, actually take the time to understand what managerial barriers exist to your desired outcomes. You have to be willing to hear people say, "I have been told explicitly by my dean that this special event is my number one priority, despite the fact that it is not fund raising-related, no donors or prospects will be involved in the event, and planning it is taking 70% of my time for the next four months, leaving only 25% of my time available for what I'm actually supposed to be doing." And you have to be willing to tackle the issue with a powerful dean and do the heavy lifting along with your staff members.

Dig it: if physical proximity automatically caused good teamwork and a doubling of revenue, you would see countless examples of this. But it ain't necessarily so.

Instead, over the years I've worked with dozens of offices where I, the outside consultant, was more of a conduit of interoffice communication -- as in, "Hey, did you know that your colleague down the hall is working on a similar project with this exact same group of constituents -- maybe we should only do one email campaign instead of two for this group?"

I'm all for reorganizing for optimum efficiency, but if you want me to be a happy camper about the whole thing, you had better be able to tell me specifically what is wrong with what we're doing now, and demonstrate how what you're proposing will measurably ameliorate that particular problem.

Because otherwise, it's just a mule in horse harness, I'm afraid. And roping your telecommuters back into your little corral isn't going to help.