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Librarians considering telecommuting, consider this

Aug 09, 2012

Library Connect would like to thank Jamene Brooks-Kieffer for her thoughtful and comprehensive post below on issues to consider in telecommuting. Jamene is Resource Linking Librarian and Associate Professor at Kansas State University Libraries in Manhattan, Kansas. She telecommutes regularly from her home in Lawrence, Kansas.
I'm a telecommuter. Not in the sense that I, like many library professionals, have an informal understanding with my supervisor that I will occasionally work from home. Rather, I have a formal, signed agreement with my employer specifying the schedule of days on which I will work remotely (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), and on which I will be physically present at the library (Tuesday and Thursday). Sound unusual? It is. But it's not unusual because my job is special. It's unusual because few libraries consider telecommuting to be a viable option for their employees.
While my title may be somewhat unique, the general duties of my position are not. I'm a professional librarian and member of my university's faculty. I'm also an application administrator whose primary responsibilities involve the care and feeding of various library systems, including an OpenURL link resolver and a proxy server. Even though my work is done in a team setting, communication is most often maintained through e-mail. I sit on my share of library and university committees but otherwise have few public-facing responsibilities. Many employees of other libraries share duties similar to mine; I know because I network with these people in virtual and face-to-face settings.
Not all employees or positions are right for telecommuting, but for those that are, libraries can gain advantages by opening up a telecommute option. Such flexibility may be key for recruiting and retaining employees whose specialized skills are difficult to replace. Library employees who negotiate a formal telecommute agreement may find more job satisfaction and be less likely to seek out other employment. For both libraries and library employees, then, here are four factors to consider when considering telecommuting.
Technology is not a barrier, but ...
Contemplate this brief list of technologies that might be necessary for the work of any library employee:
  •     VPN client
  •     VOIP phone
  •     Laptop computer
  •     Smartphone and/or tablet
  •     Web conference software
  •     Instant message (IM) software
  •     E-mail
None of these is location-dependent; all will work from any place with a network or data connection. Even so, there is a popular idea that technology is a barrier to wide adoption of telecommuting. Usually, however, when technology is a barrier to telecommuting, it is technology in the context of the workplace rather than the technology itself that causes problems.
Does the workplace offer the same level of technology support to telecommuters that it does to employees who are physically present? Often a lack of technical support for remote employees makes work difficult, especially for newer employees who are unfamiliar with the employer's culture and technology infrastructure. Does the employer train its on-site employees to use web conference equipment and connectivity software? If not, a telecommuter may find it difficult to connect with on-site colleagues even when he or she possesses excellent technology skills and properly functioning tools.
Are you right for telecommuting?
Individuals who succeed at telecommuting are often best described by characteristics that begin with “self:”
  •     Self-directed
  •     Self-confident
  •     Self-motivated
As a group, we tend to prefer autonomy to close supervision, carefully manage our time and resources, and communicate effectively using a variety of tools. We also tend to work well alone. Employees who need frequent, face-to-face interaction with colleagues or who thrive on their workplace’s social environment will not be able to meet these needs through telecommuting.
Telecommuters’ contributions to their remote workspaces vary depending on their employers’ support for the practice. Rarely, employers will furnish the full complement of furnishings and equipment required to outfit a remote office. More often, employers and their telecommuting employees each furnish a mix of the needed tools, which can include computing and telephony equipment, office furniture, and ergonomic accessories. Employees who do not have access to sufficient space for a remote office or who cannot afford to supply at least some of their own equipment are at a disadvantage when considering a regular telecommute.
Is your position right for telecommuting?
Positions that are best suited to telecommuting involve information or knowledge work that the employee can complete regardless of location using readily-available technology and equipment. Unless a full-time telecommute agreement is on the table, however, many employees who have tasks requiring their physical presence or special equipment  can telecommute for a portion of the work week if their on-site duties can be predictably scheduled.
Employees with supervisory responsibilities should not be automatically excluded from telecommuting if their positions are otherwise compatible. The idea that supervision always involves a physical presence stems from the roots of the word supervise — literally, “watch over.” There are more effective supervision techniques than physically watching over an employee; many of these are feasible via the communication and technology tools that telecommuters will already be using to complete their own tasks.
How will the library cope?
Even when all the other factors I have mentioned are compatible with telecommuting, an individual employee’s attempt to telecommute will succeed or fail based on the organization’s culture. Employers who have an already-established culture of trust in their employees and a practice of conducting results- or outcome-based evaluations will find it relatively easy to accept telecommuters. On the other hand, employees who wish to telecommute will find it rough going among colleagues and managers if their employer’s culture relies too heavily on physical presence as proof of employees’ effectiveness.
Employers who are new to the idea of regular telecommuting need to examine other factors that contribute to or impede the success of a telecommute agreement. First, consider whether the supervisors of telecommuting employees need training in management techniques that do not assume constant physical access to the employee. Also consider augmenting the workplace’s informal face-to-face communication tools, such as unscheduled hallway chats, with formal or informal communication methods in which telecommuters can also participate.
In conclusion
Even in the presence of a formal agreement, an employee’s telecommuting arrangement can evolve over time. This is particularly true when the employee in question is an organization’s first telecommuter. In such cases the entire organization may need time to make the necessary cultural and policy adjustments. For employees looking to begin telecommuting, proposing a finite trial period and some concrete measures for evaluating the trial can be an effective way to begin negotiations. Skeptical employers should examine the causes of their skepticism. Denying telecommuting because of traditions and cultural biases will not lead to productive outcomes. However, legitimate concerns for the organization can most likely be addressed by all the involved parties.
Once a telecommuting agreement has been reached, the employee may find that he or she needs to work harder than in-office colleagues, at least for a time, in order to prove that his or her work is not hampered by the arrangement. Proving that a telecommute makes no difference in the quality or promptness of work can be onerous and take time, but the results are worth it.

Works consulted:
Baker, E., Avery, G., & Crawford, J. (2006). Home Alone: The role of technology in telecommuting. Information Resources Management Journal, 19(4), 1-22.
Baruch, Y. (2000). Teleworking: Benefits and pitfalls as perceived by professionals and managers. New Technology, Work and Employment,15(1), 34-49.
Dimitrova, D. (2003). Controlling Teleworkers: Supervision and flexibility revisited. New Technology, Work and Employment, 18(3), 181-195.
Gordon, G. (1985).  Telecommuting: Working from anywhere. In M. E. Williams & T. H. Hogan (Eds.), National Online Meeting Proceedings—1985: Proceedings of the Sixth National Online Meeting (pp. 173-178). Medford, NJ: Learning Information, Inc.
Haddon, L. & Brynin, M. (2005). The Character of Telework and the Characteristics of Teleworkers. New Technology, Work and Employment, 20(1), 34-46.
Handy, S. L. & Mokhtarian, P. L. (1996). The Future of Telecommuting. Futures, 28(3), 227-240.