Want to telework? Not so fast, IT

Most IT professionals spend their days figuring out how to support a workforce that can operate wholly off-site, so employees can stay productive when they're working from home or on the road. Ironically, that "perk" remains elusive for IT, which oftentimes seems tethered to the corporate office.

Diversified Agency Services, for instance, offers its IT team flexibility when working nights and weekends, but prefers them to otherwise be on-site, according to Jerry Kelly, North America CIO at the marketing services organization, which is a division of OmniCom Group. More than that, IT workers are expected to live within close enough proximity to the office to be able to get there quickly.

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The distinction between being able to work from anywhere vs. occasionally telecommuting is important to job candidates who face long commutes and have to balance personal and family commitments.

A survey of more than 1,000 IT professionals in Florida conducted by talent search firm ProTech found that 28% of respondents listed flex time and the ability to telecommute as the best perk they had been offered by a past or present employer. It ranked well ahead of sign-on, retention and annual bonuses (17%); additional vacation time (8%); and education reimbursement and training (7%). (See also: What would you give up to telecommute? A raise? Vacation time? Spouse?

Matthew Ripaldi, senior vice president of global IT recruitment and staffing firm Modis, has observed a marked increase in job candidates looking to telecommute. "People would give up part of their salary for a flexible environment and some even prefer [the opportunity to telecommute] over health insurance," he says.

Employees who can save two or more hours by not fighting traffic enjoy not only the cost savings associated with gas and vehicle wear and tear, but also a better quality of life. They have less stress and increased productivity, Ripaldi notes.

Enabling IT to telecommute also can align with organizations' efforts to provide always-available tech support. "For most organizations, the typical IT workweek is outdated and employees log in from home nights and weekends. It's now a foregone conclusion that the technology is there to support that," Ripaldi says. Yet, surprisingly, he finds, most companies still consider telecommuting to be an earned benefit that requires trust to be built between the manager and the employee.

Not a tech problem

What's interesting to many industry observers is that often the choice to have IT come into the office has little to do with remote capabilities and more to do with culture.

At Philips Electronics, a manufacturer of healthcare equipment, IT workday flexibility has been around for almost a decade. Maridan Harris, vice president of IT, credits the deployment of remote monitoring, management and troubleshooting tools to support field service technicians. "We didn't want to force service people to come into an office when their PCs broke so we implemented software necessary to help them," Harris says.

In addition to diagnostics tools that let the help desk drive the PCs remotely, IT uses unified communications tools such as Microsoft Lync to videoconference and share documents. "Does this help IT work fully off-site? A lot of them can," she says.

Yet even Harris, who initially talked about a 100% flexibility policy, conceded that some IT members have to be close to the business units they serve. "If you're supporting the factory floor, then obviously you can't work from home. If something breaks, you need to be here," she says. Also, she points to IT staff working on requirements with business units, which usually needs to happen face-to-face.

Nonetheless, Harris believes that telecommuting is an important investment that companies should endorse to attract more qualified candidates. "I want to be able to hire the best people for key positions even if they aren't located near a core office," she says.

Best vs. nearest

One company that's all-in on telecommuting is Oil States International, a manufacturer and service provider for the oil and gas industry. An acquisition-based company, Oil States has had to absorb and assimilate numerous geographically dispersed IT organizations. To keep highly skilled talent onboard, the company has learned how to work with full-time telecommuters like Robb Harper, who says he finds companies that cling to an in-office IT culture severely at a disadvantage.

Harper, technical support analyst lead at Oil States, manages his five-person team from his home in Oklahoma City, far from Oil States' Houston headquarters. He's a senior resource for high-profile projects such as ActiveDirectory consolidation and ITIL best practices.

Although Harper believes that IT service management software such as LANDesk's Web Desk and Mobile Web Desk are essential to maintain a central repository and track all IT projects, interpersonal communication is even more critical.

"Working from home requires special initiative on my part to stay on top of things. I do have to put in extra effort," he says. Harper, who also uses Microsoft Lync, relies on Cisco's WebEx videoconferencing for "regularly scheduled face time" with team members.

Working from home has come in handy for him in dealing with users in dramatically different time zones such as Australia. "If I had to be in a sky-rise building during off-hours, it wouldn't be a very comfortable situation," he says.

The millennial generation, which is now coming into the workforce, expects the telecommuting that Oil States offers. "Of the three people I most recently hired, almost everyone wanted to know about flexibility," Harper says.

Setting telecommuters up for success

Experts agree that as data centers continue the march towards lights-out facilities, with no on-site staffing, and cloud computing puts resources off-site, full-time telecommuting will become more the norm among IT pros. Organizations should develop policies now that foster a successful telecommuting environment.

To start, companies should set boundaries - a subject Harris admits can be difficult to broach. Managers should make sure that work-at-home employees have a separate room with a door for proper privacy and professionalism on calls. Employees also should demonstrate they have adequate connectivity to support videoconferencing and other bandwidth-intensive applications.

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Just as on-site workers must have a plan if disaster strikes and they can't get into the office, telecommuters should be able to relocate somewhere if their power or Internet goes down. After the recent hurricanes in the south, some of Harper's team used their mobile 3G/4G hotspots to stay connected as they evacuated away from the storms.

OmniCom's Kelly says managers have to be honest with workers about their responsibilities. If their job is to stack racks or power-cycle servers, then they need to be in the data center. Also, if they are working with a division that is high-touch, then telecommuting has to be limited.

To start, all employees should plan on being in-office to gain their managers' trust, he believes. "Co-workers want to know that when they hand a trouble ticket off, you're going to solve the problem. And it takes time to build those kinds of relationships," he says.

With so many job candidates clamoring for full-time telecommuting, companies not restricted by regulatory compliance have to reconsider their level of flexibility. Otherwise, they could miss out on some of the best IT talent around.

Gittlen is a freelance business, technology and lifestyle journalist in the greater Boston area. She can be emailed at sgittlen@verizon.net.

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.

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