Should your IT staff telework?

Companies are split on whether it’s a good idea to let IT employees work from home.

Being available to troubleshoot tech problems remotely, at all hours of the night and on weekends, goes with the territory for IT pros. But working from home during business hours? Not so much. There are signs, however, that attitudes could be changing.

CIOs polled late last year by Robert Half Technology indicate telecommuting by IT staff members is gaining ground in some companies. Asked if their IT workforce is telecommuting at a higher rate than five years ago, 21% said they have more telecommuters now, 23% said it’s the same proportion, and only 3% said fewer IT employees are telecommuting. Just over half (51%) of the 1,400 respondents said they don’t offer telecommuting to IT staff.

The impetus for IT workers to work from home is likely no different from what’s driving any other profession to consider telework: Sky-high gas prices, traffic congestion, a desire to be environmentally friendly, business continuity, commercial real estate savings, and the appeal of flexible work arrangements, to name a few of the drivers.

Pie chart about telecommuting

“There are plenty of good reasons to telework, but right now I think that the big mover is gasoline prices,” says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, an organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes telework through education and legislative efforts.

In addition, remote-access technologies have matured a lot over the last several years, making it possible to troubleshoot IT problems in the middle of the night without scrambling to the data center.

“As recently as five years ago, your beeper would go off, you’d have to wake up, leave home, hike it to the office and do something. That doesn’t really happen anymore,” says Jasmine Noel, a partner at Ptak, Noel & Associates. With today’s browser-based systems management tools, “you can get most, if not all, of same functionality that you would get if you were physically in the office,” Noel says.

Logging on from home

IT workers can use technologies like Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), Secure Shell (SSH) and terminal servers to interact with servers and desktops. Out-of-band equipment and secure remote-access appliances let them access hardware-level controls when the network is down, says Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

Those same tools could facilitate working from home full-time, if companies are open to the idea.

“Certainly some companies will push back on this remote access, because they don’t have the technology or procedures in place, because managers are unable to adapt, or maybe their staffs are not right for telecommuting,” Mann says. “But I am seeing progressive IT organizations -- including some of the largest finance corporations in the world -- already managing their server environments remotely. Their system administrators are set up with multiple consoles, VPN and remote access protocols in a home office on the other side of the country.”

One strategic driver is the ability to recruit IT talent from all parts of the world. “This is a very real opportunity for enterprises to attract the very best talent, provide high value administration and reduce costs,” Mann says.

Eric Bruner works full-time for Sallie Mae from his home. But he didn’t always telecommute. Bruner first worked in one of Sallie Mae’s corporate offices for eight years before making the switch to teleworking.

Having some initial in-person experience with co-workers is helpful, particularly in the IT field, says Bruner, who is director of marketing operations (and former senior manager of systems development) at the Reston, Va.-based financial services provider.

“When you first start working in IT, and with people who are doing what you’re doing, it would be much more difficult to learn from others if you were telecommuting, because they’re not right next to you,” he says. “The new people learn from the more veteran people, and if they aren’t all sitting together, you can lose out on a lot of training that occurs informally in IT.”

Ironically, staying in touch can be easier as a teleworker, he has found. As an in-office manager, Bruner spent a lot of time in meetings, and his direct reports tended to touch base only when they could catch him in his office. As a teleworker, Bruner says his reports are able to contact him more quickly when they need to, using instant messaging, e-mail or the phone.

“When I started telecommuting I had 10 direct reports. After I had worked remotely for a few months, I asked how things were different for them. They said I was more accessible to them than I had been when I was in the office,” recalls Bruner.

One tech executive who has done an about-face on the issue of IT workers telecommuting is John Halamka. “I believed that employees needed proximity to work together effectively. I no longer believe that to be true,” says Halamka, who is CIO of Boston’s CareGroup Health System and CIO and technology dean at Harvard Medical School.

Halamka penned an article for CIO magazine in which he detailed what changed his mind and led him to pursue a telework pilot, which is ongoing, for certain call center employees, medical record coders and desktop engineering teams at CareGroup’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Not for everyone

As in every industry, however, there are roadblocks slowing telework adoption by IT professionals.

The IT industry is susceptible to the same doubts (which telework advocates work hard to dispel) about whether teleworkers are working hard enough. In the Robert Half survey, 44% of CIOs felt that quality of work suffers due to diminished in-person contact with colleagues, and 30% felt that telecommuting employees are not as productive because they have less oversight.

In addition, 31% of CIOs felt that telecommuting employees generate too many security risks because they need to access corporate networks, systems and intellectual property off-site.

Another concern for some IT teams is that allowing teleworking could lead a company to decide to outsource its IT operations, says industry analyst Noel. “There’s fear that if people get used to IT not having to come in to the office, then it’s only a short step to say, ‘Well then why can’t we just outsource IT completely?’ Especially since the offshoring trend has just ballooned,” she says.

Plus for some IT jobs, being onsite is key to getting the job done.

Certain IT roles such as programming, application development and consulting might lend themselves to telework, notes Craig Bush, a network administrator at Exactech in Gainesville, Fla. But if a job requires hands-on work, such as installing network equipment, or face-to-face interaction with end users, such as help desk, he doesn’t think it should be a candidate for working from home.

“We don’t currently encourage work at home as we generally cannot solve the problems and troubleshoot things, nor can we provide customer service to our internal customers by working outside the office,” Bush says.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance comes from having a clear separation between work and home life, he adds. “I also think it’s probably a good thing [we don’t telework], as we get a proper work-life balance by the separation of our work and home life.”

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