How to make telecommuting work

December 23, 2010: 9:57 AM ET

Telecommuting is a major money-saver for companies large and small, but it makes it especially challenging for coworkers to form the kind of relationships that lead to great work. Here are a few tips to bring teleworkers into the fold.

By Alexandra Levit, contributor

Nearly half of U.S.-based companies currently have employees who telework, or work from outside the office – and with good reason. Telework has the potential to save companies, communities, and employees over $600 billion a year, according to the Telework Research Network.

Even the federal government has jumped on the bandwagon. Based on the success of telecommuting at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and other agencies, President Obama recently signed into law a bill aimed at increasing telework at federal agencies. Under the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, agencies have 180 days to establish a policy on working outside the office and create training programs for teleworkers and telework managers. The bill is estimated to affect some 1.2 million government workers.

When managers think about allowing their employees to telecommute, they are typically concerned about actual time spent on the clock and productivity during that time.

But a major challenge for teleworkers is knowledge sharing -- the giving and receiving of ''know-how'' and other insights, and a willingness to exchange wisdom and acquired experiences with other team members.

In an era where aging Baby Boomers are moving into retirement and less experienced employees are taking their place, knowledge sharing is more critical than ever.

Researchers Timothy Golden and Sumita Raghuram investigated the factors that affect knowledge sharing among teleworkers in a study recently published by the Journal of Organizational Behavior,

For six months, the researchers followed a group of employees who were voluntarily teleworking for a global software company. These employees were given equipment to facilitate their work and their communication with others, and they were encouraged to work in close collaboration with other team members and their supervisors.
Golden and Raghuram found that three factors -- trust, interpersonal bonds, and organizational commitment -- promoted knowledge sharing among teleworkers.

But how do you inspire trust and establish bonds with a fellow worker when you don't share an office?

In-person communication is essential for knowledge sharing, especially when trust has not yet been established among coworkers, so managers who oversee teleworking employees should make sure to gather their teams together in person several times a year.

"The ideal setting might be a retreat, where informal, impromptu conversations can take place and warm relationships can be nurtured," says Golden. "Participating in time-limited meetings where concrete objectives must be accomplished doesn't count."

Including employees who telework in after-work events is also a good idea.

"Invite remote workers who can easily get to your office to all holiday functions, company picnics, and other social events – it will help solidify their membership on the team," says Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide.

Trust, interpersonal bonds, and organizational commitment can also come from giving employees access to the kind of remote communications tools that make physical distance less of an issue, such as instant messaging and web conference tools, Goodman says.

"Teleworkers should have access to the software they need to join meetings, as well as the corporate systems and files they need to do their work without having to rely on onsite workers, which can make them feel like second-class citizens," Goodman says.

In addition to strategies that enhance trust, interpersonal bonds, and organizational commitment, managers can promote knowledge sharing with weekly project status check-ins by phone or online.

"A regular opportunity for onsite and remote workers to keep you and each other abreast of developments will keep everyone accountable and talking with one another," says Goodman. "It also adds continuity to what can be a very fluid and unstructured way of working."

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