Ask Annie

What it takes to telecommute, or manage people who do

February 21, 2014: 11:49 AM ET

Working from home productively takes certain traits that would-be telecommuters (and their bosses) can often spot ahead of time.

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FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I lead a team of 12 brand managers, and some of them seem to have read your column about how to persuade a reluctant boss to let you work from home because lately I've been deluged with requests. The problem is, a couple of the people asking are those with the most seniority but who I think are not well-suited to working alone, away from the office. Meanwhile, one of my newer team members could make the transition easily.

From my own experience working from home at a previous employer, I know it takes a certain personality to telecommute effectively. Some people have it, and some other strong performers just don't. Do you or your readers have any advice on how to say "no" to some team members and not others without causing a lot of weird political tension here? I asked our HR department for help, and they just looked at me as if I had two heads. -- Besieged in Boston

Dear B.B.: You're certainly right that not everybody is cut out to do their best work home alone, and some people who think they'd like it end up with a bad case of cabin fever. Shani Magosky is CEO of Vitesse Consulting, which specializes in designing companies' telecommuting policies and practices. In her previous job, Magosky ran a firm where most of her 40-plus employees were scattered over 20 states and abroad. One of them "got all her energy and confidence from interacting with peers," says Magosky. As a telecommuter, "she missed that daily camaraderie so much that it turned out to be her downfall."

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Pamela La Gioia, head of job site Telework Recruiting, points out that these days, "extroverts can rely on Facebook for some of that day-to-day interaction, since most people spend more time on social media than talking to their colleagues in person anyway."

Still, working alone demands a particular set of skills. "The most important one is, can you make a decision without input from anyone else?" La Gioia says. "Some people really struggle without daily supervision. They need that extra bit of pressure to do their best work," and they may not realize that until it's gone. "You also need to be extremely results-oriented, and assertive enough to push back when someone -- a neighbor, a child -- tries to interrupt your train of thought," she adds. "Working alone takes an extraordinary ability to focus. It's almost an entrepreneurial mindset of total commitment to the work."

"The most productive telecommuters are self-starters, and very well-organized," Magosky says. It helps, too, to be "comfortable with change and new technology. In my old job, I had a few people who were reluctant to learn to use new tools like collaboration software, and it was a real problem."

Seniority, Magosky notes, has nothing to do with any of this, and she thinks you're right to hesitate to say "yes" to every request. "Managers have to look at each person's track record," she says. "If you can see from someone's behavior in the office that they need a lot of supervision, or a lot of water-cooler socializing, or they have trouble meeting deadlines, then encouraging them to work from home is just setting them up for failure -- or for having to crawl back to the office, which is embarrassing, too."

For that reason, both Magosky and La Gioia say that companies -- or, at the very least, individual team leaders like you -- need a standardized checklist of telecommuting traits. "Trying to let some people telecommute on an ad hoc basis, without a clear set of criteria for who works at home and who doesn't, puts bosses in an untenable position," says Magosky. "You need to be able to point to a specific business reason for turning down someone's request."

The ability to meet deadlines without being reminded, for instance, could belong on that list, because "someone who has trouble with that in the office is not going to be any better at it" when they're working alone, she says. What's on your list depends on what you as a team leader value most, of course. But having an objective standard for your decisions, based on what you've observed about each person's performance, can go a long way toward minimizing the "weird political tension" you describe.

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Once you've got one or more remote employees, Magosky adds, your management style may have to change, too. "Making telecommuting work is really a two-way street," she says. "When Yahoo pulled the plug on working from home because people were supposedly less productive away from the office, I blamed the managers who evidently took their eye off the ball."

Your own experience working from home probably taught you the basics that Magosky recommends. The biggest one is communication. "Goals and priorities are always shifting, and it's important to keep everyone up to date, and not let remote employees be 'out of sight, out of mind,'" she notes. "You almost have to over-communicate with people who aren't there every day, both to keep them from feeling isolated and to make sure they understand the context of decisions -- not only what's happening, but why.

"People are story-making machines. If we don't know what's going on, we start making up stories, and unfortunately they're usually bad, negative, anxiety-producing stories," Magosky says. "You don't want anybody wasting energy on that."

Talkback: If you've telecommuted, or managed people who have, what was most important in making it work (or not)? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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