Telecommuting Tips

With all the collaboration technology available for offices today, there's no reason telecommuters can't be as productive and as connected as other team members.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, known for high-tech companies, horrible traffic and high cost of living. When it came time for me to buy a house, I chose an area that left me with a 90–120-minute commute, depending on traffic and the time of day, so through the years, I've negotiated work-from-home days and have experience with telecommuting at companies of various sizes with different proportions of remote workers. Telecommuting is not only more convenient for many employees, it also can get the best work out of people, because it can grant better opportunities to focus and lets employees get right to work instead of spending hours getting to and from work. Unfortunately, many places inadvertently sabotage their telecommuters with bad practices, so here are a few tips to help make telecommuting successful.

Invest in Good Teleconference Hardware

I've attended many video conferences where the audio was so horrible, I might as well have not joined. Or worse, there was a time when one speaker was loud and clear, but when the conversation went to the other side of the table, it was inaudible. Although it's nice to have quality cameras, having quality microphones is critical. Make sure each of your meeting rooms has quality microphones that can pick up sounds all around the meeting table, and make sure attendees speak up. Relying on the microphone on someone's laptop just doesn't cut it for meetings involving more than two people. Although it's considered good meeting etiquette to have only one person speak at a time, this protocol is extra important if you have anyone calling in, as cross-talk makes it all but impossible to hear either conversation even over a good microphone.

Add Video Conference Links to Every Meeting

Make it a habit to add a link to your video conference room for each meeting you create, even if all of the attendees are expected to be in the office. This habit ensures that when you realize you forgot to invite a remote workers, you aren't scrambling to figure out how to set up the video conference, plus sometimes even team members in the office need to work from home at the last minute. If your scheduling software can do this automatically, even better (some do this by having each meeting room in a contact list and inviting the relevant meeting room to the meeting). Also make sure you set this up for all-hands company-wide meetings.

Remember to Invite Remote Workers to Impromptu Meetings

Companies that rely on a central office often treat telecommuters as second-class citizens. Not only are they left out of impromptu hallway conversations, when those hallways move to a meeting room, the attendees also often forget to invite any remote workers who may be stakeholders in the decision and find out about major decisions only after the fact. Try to keep relevant team discussions in your work chat, so remote workers can participate (this has the added advantage of creating a nice log of your conversation, plus multiple people can participate at once). If you do end up moving a discussion into a meeting room, remember to invite your remote team members.

Take Advantage of Group Chat, Even in the Office

There are many advantages to using group chat for team communication, even if team members are in the same office. The virtual "tap on the shoulder" in a group chat is much less disruptive to someone's focus than the actual in-person tap on the shoulder, which means if someone is deeply focused on a task, your chat notification may not disrupt them, although physically standing behind them forces them to stop anything they are doing. By sticking to group chat for these kinds of communications, you can be sure that remote members of the team aren't left out of any discussions, and every person feels like an equal member of the team.

Be Responsive in Chat

If you work remotely and a lot of your team is in an office, it's more important than ever to stay responsive in chat. In an office, people know you are there by whether you are at your desk, but when telecommuting, it all comes down to whether you respond when someone contacts you in chat. If your chat program provides ways to escalate notifications from your desktop to the phone app, take advantage of them. That way if you step away from your desk for a moment, your phone still can tell you when someone needs you. If you are going to step away from your desk for an extended amount of time to get lunch or run an errand, make sure someone on your team knows (or set a proper away message if your chat supports it). If you are in the office, realize that chat is the main way remote workers will communicate, so try to reward their responsiveness by being responsive yourself.

In summary, the key to telecommuting being a success is to treat remote team members as equals and to take advantage of all of the great collaboration tools that exist these days to keep teams connected. These small steps can make all the difference in helping remote workers be productive and feel like part of the team.

Kyle Rankin is a Tech Editor and columnist at Linux Journal and the Chief Security Officer at Purism. He is the author of Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting, The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks, Knoppix Pocket Reference, Linux Multimedia Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks, and also a contributor to a number of other O'Reilly books. Rankin speaks frequently on security and open-source software including at BsidesLV, O'Reilly Security Conference, OSCON, SCALE, CactusCon, Linux World Expo and Penguicon. You can follow him at @kylerankin.

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