Why Contingent Telecommuting is a Good Idea

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Telecommuting isn’t for everyone. It may, however, be the best way to get to work for thousands of workers where I live,  Jacksonville, Florida, for at least the next month or so.

On Thursday, September 26, a retractable (but unretracted) crane atop the USNS 1st LT Harry L. Martin slammed into the deck of the 60-year-old John E. Mathews Bridge, a major crossing over the St. Johns River in Florida’s most populous city. (That’s right – Jacksonville is Florida’s most populous city. Don’t believe it? Look it up.) Fortunately, nobody was hurt. But many thousands are pretty cranky over it, as the bridge, which carries about 56,000 vehicles daily, will be closed, in the words of the Florida Department of Transportation, “indefinitely”. They’re now saying “4-6 weeks”. “Indefinitely” almost sounds better.

Although the numbers are on a smaller scale, this is proportionally like closing the San Francisco Bay Bridge for a month. The Mathews connects downtown Jacksonville to the beaches and dozens of other communities on the eastside of the river. I live 5 minutes from it. I’m just thankful I work at home. The bridge is, however, between home and work for both my wife and my daughter. Did I mention cranky? And who can blame them?

But they’re among the lucky. Each works in a fairly traditional office setting, but – and under the circumstances, this is a big but – both have the ability to work from home when necessary. And never has it been more necessary.

Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer created an uproar when she decreed that it was time for all Yahoo staff to come back to the office and spend some serious face time together. This blog supported (and still supports) Mayer’s position. She’s the boss, and she had some pretty good reasons for calling the big get-together, known in some organizations as “coming to work”.

But we’re not against telecommuting. Anything but. The practice comes with many benefits – and risks – for employee and employer alike. And for the right people, in the right circumstances, it does lots of good. Whether or not you’re going to establish such a working relationship, on a full-time or most-time basis, is a decision that should be subjected to important questions: how will it affect your customers, your productivity, your home life, and especially, your career development (out of sight, out of mind, and all that)?

But what we call contingent telecommuting is a different story altogether. Contingent telecommuters are regular fixtures in their traditional workplaces. Most days, they mount some form of public or private transportation, and do their work, physically among their colleagues, like people have been doing for ages. But they’re set up – prepared for working from home when it makes sense. Like when the bridge between your house and your office gets whacked by a Navy ship. Or when any of the following comes your way:

  • a rare snowfall closes the roads, and your city doesn’t have snow removal equipment
  • your kids are sick
  • you are sick, as in, contagious, but feel well enough to work
  • the plumber is coming, and has given you an arrival window of something like 8am to 6pm

These are but a few examples.

OK, so unlike 10 years ago, virtually everyone’s got a computer and high speed Internet access at home these days. That’s the starting point. Regular telecommuters have all this stuff set up, all the time. Contingent telecommuters, and their employers, will want to make sure these things are in place and ready to deploy when needed:

  • a reliable, secure platform for logging into the office setup.
  • a quiet place to work, free from pets, or the sound of crying children (or adults, for that matter!)
  • a landline, with an easy way to bill long distance to the employer – OR – a good mobile phone with coverage better than I get at my house.
  • basic office supplies – enough to get stuff done and maintain some semblance of organization. No need for a wholesale raid of the office supply cabinet at work, but get what you need.
  • look around your cubicle or office – are there phone numbers or other bits of vital information scrawled on yellow stickies or tacked to the walls? If so, put this stuff on your laptop, or in some other manner, replicate the cubicle environment at home. Don’t waste time trying to find “that guy’s number” when everyone’s been shut out of the office because of Hurricane Whats-His-Name.

Again, this post isn’t about the pro’s and con’s of telecommuting in general. That’s a tale for another day. But get yourself, and the people you lead, at least setup to work from home when necessary, and when necessary happens, you’ll all be ready.

Richard Hadden is a leadership speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations improve their business results by virtue of a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular “Contented Cows” leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Their newest book, Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk, is due to be released by John Wiley & Sons on July 3, but is available for presale now. Learn more about them and their work at ContentedCows.com.

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