Telecommuting is one of the signature game-changers of the information age, leveling out geography and creating all kinds of working relationships that had never been possible.
NewWest.Net is almost a paradigm of a semivirtual organization, with employees and contractors scattered around the West — and yet constantly in contact via e-mail, instant messaging, Skype, and the telephone.
But if someone in the Missoula, Mont., office wants to work from home without a very good reason, I have a simple answer: No. And if we're hiring, we prefer to recruit people who can come into the office every day, even if the job could be done from anywhere.
Years of experience with far-flung organizations have taught me more about the limits of telecommuting than about its advantages. I firmly believe that you should expect employees to show up for work, whenever possible, no matter what kind of company.
The reasons for this have nothing to do with checking that people are actually working. It's about efficient communications, building company culture and camaraderie, and sharing the daily bits of work and personal experiences that create a shared sense of purpose.
For starters, all the telecommunications tools and document-sharing systems in the world are no substitute for the simple act of walking over to someone's desk and pointing to something on a screen or asking a question. It's almost always quicker than any technological alternative, and there's little room for confusion.
This issue increases when more people participate in a task. Coordinating input from three or four or five people via e-mail is a recipe for errors and misunderstanding. And conference calls are so far inferior to face-to-face meetings that I barely bother with them at all. Rather than the collective engagement of a good meeting, you end up with people half-listening while they catch up on e-mail. Plus lots of awkward silences.
The little day-to-day stuff can matter more than you think. In our small office, we don't have a full-time receptionist, and everyone takes turns answering the phones. If we need stamps or office supplies, someone has to run to the post office or the store. If we need to chase away the bums who like to hang out in the alley by the door, it's always good to have a little backup. If only a few people are in the office while others are working from home, resentment can build quickly.
And the problems grow with distance. Before I launched NewWest.Net, I worked a brief stint overseeing a group of reporters in Europe from my home in Missoula. This did not work at all. With my team eight time zones away, it was impossible to work closely. And the 20-hour, three-leg flight to visit got old very fast. Even at more modest ranges, there's a disconnect when one person is finishing breakfast and chatting about the sunny day while a colleague is getting ready to head out to lunch in the snow.
Obviously there are plenty of situations where you just have to suck it up and deal with these complexities. Our Boise, Ind., editor needs to be in Boise. We draw strength from having reporters and salespeople on the ground across the region—in fact, it's central to our business model. And for the best talent, you often have to compromise, even if that means hiring someone far away or letting them work from home.
But do not make such compromises lightly. And when you do, try to find as many reasons as possible to get people together. A company retreat can be very useful even if it accomplishes no other purpose. If someone has a deal to work from home, ask them to come by the office as often as possible. Bring the out-of-towners to the home office whenever you can afford to. If you want everyone on the same page, start with having them in the same place.