Making Telecommuting Work for Your Product Development Team

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Can you make telecommuting work for your organization? Of course you can. The question is this: Will it make your product development proceed faster, with more ease and less cost, and allow you the most flexibility? If not, you may want to reconsider having employees telecommute.

Once you have a telecommuter, you have a geographically distributed team, and anyone who’s been on one knows the stresses that come with it. People who work remotely full-time have an obligation to their teammates to be available during work hours and to make it easy to find them. They also owe it to their team to be productive for the entire workday and have a workspace free of distractions.

If you are camped out to work in the living room and have children or pets around you, you might be typing an email or writing code, but your mind is not 100 percent on work. Some part of your brain is paying attention to what the kids are doing (or wondering why they got so quiet). In truth, you are shortchanging the company because you are not delivering a full day of work.

With proper discipline and a designated work area, anyone can make telecommuting work, especially if it’s just one or two days every week or so. But five days a week? No. That’s not reasonable for your teams. If you want to know the cost to your team of your not working with them on a daily basis, measure the value stream in your project.

Once you have established teams, teams can create their own norms. But it takes many iterations and lots of trust to build those established norms. I understand the time it takes to drive to work and the high cost of child care. And of course I understand working from home in an emergency. But I do not recommend team members telecommute on a regular basis, especially if you want an agile team.

If agile isn't for your organization, then discuss if an iterative approach, an incremental approach, or a combination is best for your team. It’s all about what your team needs for product development. This is about bringing working people together for innovation and creativity. The best thing you can do is talk about this issue with the people in your company. There may be a reason employees want to telecommute. If you are a manager, don’t assume you have all the answers. You might not even understand all the problems.

I'm sure this will set off a discussion in the comments. What have you found to work best for your organization? Do you find that your team actually works better remotely? Let me know!

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Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. She is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and Gantthead.com, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman.com, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.com.