How to Select Telecommutersă

Paul C. Boyd


Telecommuting is a management strategy for, among other things, improving organizational effectiveness.  It is a process that should be encouraged based upon its ability to increase organizational productivity.  That is, telecommuting should be implemented as a policy to improve the performance of employees, and not one that is a “benefit” to a particular group.  It should be utilized to enhance future job performance and not to reward past accomplishments.


This is not meant to suggest that telecommuting is not a tremendous benefit to employees.  But the reasons for instituting a telecommuting policy include a variety of organizational benefits: improved employee productivity, scheduling flexibility, increased time available for work, overhead reductions, improved employee retention and attraction, and program continuity (decreased impact of external events such as snow storms - disaster mitigation).[1]  In fact, organizations find it difficult to justify the implementation of telework programs if they approach telecommuting as a tactic to address a single perceived benefit.  It is not until they consider each of the potential benefits, and design their telecommuting programs to address all of them, that telecommuting becomes a worthwhile, cost effective option.  Telecommuting programs are most successful when they are implemented as a strategy to address the full range of organizational benefits, and not when they are employed as a tactic to address a single benefit (i.e., employee morale).


With this in mind, a frequent question for organizations setting up telecommuting programs is “Who should telecommute?”  The answer depends on a number of factors, including: the nature of the organization’s business, the type of work being conducted, the technological capabilities at the central office, the desires of the employee, and the availability of space for a dedicated home office.


The decision as to who should telecommute may be broken down into two components: 1) the identification of the positions with job responsibilities that can be performed productively away from the central office, and 2) the determination as to which individuals have home situations and work habits that permit the effective use of telecommuting resources.  The positions that are suitable for telecommuting should be established at the organizational level.  The individuals within these positions who should be permitted to telecommute should be determined at the unit level.





Telecommuting, the process of working away from the central office (usually at home) for a part of the work week, is different than telework, working from the home full time.  Because telecommuters also maintain a presence at the office, telecommuting can be appropriate for a wider range of positions than telework.  For example, positions that require the presence of the employee at a specific corporate location on a regular, but not continual basis can be suitable for telecommuting.  Buyers who regularly schedule meetings with sales representatives on Tuesdays and Thursdays could be scheduled to telecommute Mondays, Wednesdays, and/or Fridays.  The need to be in the office part of the time is not sufficient reason to avoid the potential benefits of telecommuting for a particular job type.


A distinction should be made between job titles and job functions.  The responsibilities of a particular job title will include a range of specific job functions.  While some job functions have to be performed at organizational (or client) facilities, many do not.  All of the functions that can be performed away from these facilities are suitable for telecommuting, regardless of the other, on-site responsibilities of the employee.


The types of functions that cannot be performed away from the employer’s facilities include:

·        activities that require physical contact with goods (e.g., retail or transportation, and equipment (e.g., manufacturing, specialized or not transportable computers/software),

·        responsibilities that require a public presence (e.g., cashiering or reception), and

·        activities that require the telecommunication of information of such a nature that data security is critical.[2]

Note that other functions, such as sales and consulting, are often performed at a client location.  Employees performing these functions are often considered to be “telecommuters” by virtue of the fact that they often work away from the office and that their typical mode of communication with their employers is telephonic.  No doubt that this is a form of remote work, but “telecommuting” is dependent upon the replacement of a commute, and these individuals make no such substitution.


Generally, positions with only the types of responsibilities listed above cannot do their jobs at home or at telework centers and should be excluded from consideration as telecommuters.  However, any position that requires the incumbent to work at least some time alone (and with relatively “luggable” equipment) is a potential telecommuter.  Since this rule-of-thumb may include most of the positions in an organization, it is often easier to identify the positions that are not suitable for telecommuting.


The determination as to which positions should be permitted to telecommute should be based upon the presence of functional responsibilities that can be achieved at home.  Job tasks that have been identified as appropriate for telecommuting include:

·        Reading

·        Writing and editing (proposals, policies, reports, etc.)

·        Preparing (and practicing) presentations

·        Data entry and transcription

·        Outbound telephoning

·        On-line research (Dialog, Internet/WWW, etc.)

·        Programming

·        Data analysis

·        In-bound telephone answering (information & referral; call centers)

·        Computer Assisted Design (CAD)


The following table presents a partial list of job titles identified as telecommuters in a 1996 study in Massachusetts.



Sample Telecommuting Positions[3]


Account Executive

Environmental Systems Admin.

Prof. Development Manager

Administrative Assistant

Executive Assistant

Project Leader


Executive Director

Public Relations Specialist

Agency Manager

Graphic Designer

Quality Control Specialist

Assistant Adjunct General

Hospital Space Planner

Regional Planner

Assistant Marketing Manager

Information Technology Specialist

Sales Executive

Assistant Vice President

Legal Counsel

Sales Manager

Associate Director

Library Administrator

Senior Business Consultant

Business Controls Consultant

Logistics Consultant

Sr. Environmental Engineer

Business Manager

Manager of Data Communications

Service Specialist


Manager of Document Services

SW Develop. Programmer

Chief Technical Officer

Marketing Consultant

Software Engineer

Clinical Director

Marketing Manager

Staff Assistant

Communications Consultant

Medical Clerk

Staff Director

Customer Service Manager

Medical Transcriptionist

Systems Analyst

Data Center Director

Network Manager

Systems Consultant

Development Director

Operations Manager

Systems Engineer

Director of Data Center

Policy Analyst

Team Leader

Director of Human Resources


Technical Manager

Director of Planning

Product Manager

Technical Support Specialist

Director, Strategic Development

Product Planner

Telesales Representative


Production Manager

Vice President






One of the major claims of telecommuting proponents is that telecommuters are more productive when they are away from the distractions at the office.  This is true for the vast majority of individuals who try telecommuting: working away from office distractions, according to their own schedules, and without the burden of a lengthy commute, creates a much more productive work environment.  However, there is a small minority for whom the negative aspects of telecommuting outweigh the benefits.  For these individuals, working at home proves to be much less productive than working at the office.


There are two main reasons behind this phenomenon.  First, the telecommuter’s home office may not be set-up or situated in such a way that the employee can separate their work and home lives.  This situation arises when the home office is not removed from the non-work household environment and subject to disruptions from other household members (e.g., spouse, children, or roommates).


These individuals may find that they are either always at work or always at home.  Neither is a desirable situation.  Workaholics and those easily distracted may not be suitable candidates for telecommuting.


The second reason for decreased productivity at home comes from individuals who either need the structure of an office environment to work efficiently or those for whom the office is the major source of social interaction.  Some individuals find that they need job structure to tell them when to work (and when to call it quits).  Others enjoy going to the office in order to gain and maintain their primary sphere of friends.  For both of these types of employees, telecommuting may be viewed as a burden.


There are four specific actions that organizations can take to insure that the individuals selected will be productive telecommuters:


First, telecommuting should be voluntary.  Voluntary telecommuting allows those individuals who feel a need to be at the office (either for structure or for social interactions) to self-select out.  Employees should be given as much control as possible over their work lives, for self control builds both job satisfaction and commitment.  Voluntary telecommuting programs take into consideration the fact that all employees are not alike.


Second, telecommuters should be able to provide home office space that can be isolated from the rest of the household.  Telecommuting candidates should be interviewed prior to the start of the program to ensure that they (and, more importantly, other household members) can distinguish between when they are working and when they are not.  This usually can be accomplished through the designation of a particular room as the home office and the ability to isolate oneself in the room.  The requirement should be incorporated into the Telecommuter Agreement signed by both the telecommuter and supervisor.  The Agreement should also assert the organization’s right (and obligation) to verify -- via on-site inspection -- that the home office provides a safe, ergonomically effective work environment.


Third, telecommuters should be provided opportunities for both professional and social interactions with their peers.  In order to avoid the feeling of isolation that can develop when working alone, telecommuting should not be a full-time practice.  All tele-commuters should be scheduled to work at the corporate facility at least one day per week.  This time should be spent developing teamwork, for training, and for general professional interaction. 


Finally, measures of performance should be based upon outputs rather than inputs.    The best way to measure and verify any performance, whether or not an individual telecommutes, is to measure output.  Measuring inputs does not say anything about productivity.  For example, measuring time (i.e., verifiable hours on the job) does not insure that the time is well spent.  The performance measures for telecommuters (and non-telecommuters) should give management the ability to assess the employees contribution to the organization’s goals and objectives.


The best way to insure that the correct individuals become telecommuters is to have unit supervisors make the determination.  Unit supervisors, besides having a general knowledge of their subordinates, should be responsible for upholding the organization’s part of the telecommuter agreement.  Supervisors are, of course, responsible for their unit’s performance, so it is reasonably important to them that they be the one’s to verify the appropriateness of an individual’s situation for telecommuting.  This verification should be performed within the guidelines established at the organizational level.




There are two frequent questions about the appropriateness of telecommuting for specific work situations:  Do the job requirements of supervisors preclude their participation in a telecommuting program?  And can positions that need to collaborate closely as part of a work team telecommute without negatively affecting team performance?


Should those who supervise others be permitted to telecommute?


Supervisors and managers are expected to monitor the performance of their subordinates, provide direction, and serve as coach and mentor.  Some senior and mid-level managers have expressed concern that these individuals can not effectively perform their responsibilities if they telecommute.  Managers who do telecommute, however, suggest otherwise.  Supervisors can telecommute so long as their responsibilities can be performed away from corporate facilities.


If managers or supervisors have responsibilities that can be accomplished away from the presence of subordinates, coworkers, and their own supervisor, then they too should be permitted to telecommute. 


The issue of accessibility is valid, but can be worked around with adequate planning.  Supervisors, like other telecommuters, should be scheduled in the office at least one day per week to handle managerial responsibilities that cannot be dealt with via telephone or email.


Any job function that need not be performed in the presence of others (or with specialized equipment) can be performed away from the office.  As is evident from the job titles in the Sample Telecommuting Positions table above, many managers can and do telecommute.


Should telecommuting be allowed when “teamwork” is critical?


There is some concern that teamwork will be negatively affected when team members are absent from day-to-day brainstorming activities.  This has proved unfounded.  In those cases where electronic collaboration is not technologically feasible, the scheduling of a sufficient number of “in office” (non-telecommuting) days has sufficiently addressed this issue.


The current technology permits a variety of collaborative efforts that do not require face to face interaction.  A number of tools are available: email with attachments, groupware (e.g., Lotus Notes), the “Revisions” function in word processing programs, electronic whiteboards, etc.  Some organizations have gone so far as to provide video conferencing capabilities to their telecommuters, but that seems a little excessive.


Teamwork no longer requires that team members be hunched over the same table.




The process of selecting telecommuters is not so much one of qualifying individuals for the “right” to telecommute as it is one of ruling out those (few) positions that are unsuitable and ensuring the compatibility of the employee with the responsibilities of telecommuting.


Due to perceptions about the costs of setting up a telecommuter, organizations often base the right to telecommute on past performance, as a reward or benefit, or to respond to a specific set of circumstances (e.g., to allow an employee to ease back into work after maternity leave, or to permit an employee to drop off and retrieve children from day care at a reasonable hour).  However, experts agree that the costs of setting up telecommuters is rapidly repaid (in terms of increased productivity, reduced recruiting costs, etc.) and that organizations should seek to include, rather than exclude, individuals from telecommuting programs.  Telecommuter selection criteria should not be based on past performance; nor should it be based upon the salary of the employee.


1.   Telecommuting is a strategy to address a number of organizational issues, not a tactic to provide an additional benefit to employees.

2.   Because telecommuting tends to increase performance (particularly the performance of those distracted by office interruptions), telecommuting should be permitted for all who are not excluded due to job function factors.

3.   Using non-objective criteria for telecommuter selection will create the impression that telecommuting is a benefit for favorites or friends, and not a strategy for improving productivity.  Such an impression can be demotivating for non-telecommuters.

4.   The failure to implement a formal telecommuting program will lead organizations to deny themselves the full set of benefits (including overhead cost reductions, improved retention/ attraction, etc.) that are possible from such programs.


[1]   See Boyd, Paul C., Six Organizational Benefits of Telecommuting, at http:/

[2]   Note that recent improvements in data security techniques have removed this as a practical limitation to telework.  However, certain organizations, particularly federal agencies, still believe that the potential risks of the release of “secret” information outweigh the benefits associated with telecommuting.

[3]   Extracted from Boyd, Tringali, & Palladino, Massachusetts Telecommuting Initiative: Final Report, Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources, October, 1996; p. V-19.



Paul C. Boyd is a research and organizational consultant in Massachusetts.  For additional information:,, or (508) 528-2772.