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Telecommuting: There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of

And it can assemble a best-of-breed staff

We started a recruiting firm almost six years ago. At the time, I thought about the number of telecommuting positions we would get moving forward; after all, we were working with professionals doing Open Source development. It only made sense that the outcome of the Open Source model, successful off-site collaboration, would result in corporations letting these people work off-site. For the last six years, I've found it to be quite the opposite. Granted, there are many developers who are allowed to work remotely, but not as many as I originally thought. So the question is, "Why is that so?" I'm going to repeat what we've been told by the management class, but I'm ultimately going to argue corporations have to offer this option more routinely.

The process of Open Source software creation involves dispersed individuals working remotely around the globe. Some of the top developers that we have worked with in the United States are in remote places such as Wisconsin and Iowa, not exactly what you think of as technology hubs. But that's the beauty of Open Source. It lets people participate no matter where they are. Conversely, we sometimes find candidates in remote locations who are having a hard time finding a job that maximizes their talents.

When we work with a new client, we discuss the possibility of opening the position to folks who want to telecommute. Nearly ever time I bring it up I'm told no. There appears to be a lack of trust and flexibility in corporate policy though in most cases the companies get an in-depth look at the engineers' work as a result of it being Open Source.

In my opinion, the driving factor in whether or not a company should open a position to telecommuting is if the work is measurable. In other words, is it relatively easy to determine how long it should take a good engineer to complete a particular project? Say a company needed an engineer to write a device driver. From its experience, it should be able to say that it will take a good engineer three months to complete such a project. And if that's so, then why not let him do it remotely, if he's not in a position to be an on-site employee?

Companies, however, generally stress the need for the person to be on-site to collaborate; but, even if the person is on-site, do engineers always communicate face-to-face? Because of all the communication vehicles we have at our fingertips much of the communication done inside companies today is by phone, instant messages and e-mail even if the person is just a few cubicles away. So does it really matter whether he's in the next cubicle or 500 miles away? Isn't the communication format the same no matter what the distance? In most cases, the answer is yes.

Besides the telecommuting issue in an initial candidate search, challenges can arise after a person is known to be a productive employee. Due to bureaucratic corporate policies, some places risk losing top-notch employees over telecommuting. In one recent case, that's exactly what happened. The person was a productive team member for a significant period of time, but because of his lengthy commute to and from work, he wanted to work remotely part of the week. After multiple conversations with his manager and his manager's superior, such an arrangement was deemed to be against corporate policy. They were afraid that if they let one person do it everybody else would demand the same treatment. Of course one never knows whether that would have happened but they lost a key member of their engineering team.

There's one time when I believe it's essential to have the people on-site to collaborate and that's during the architectural stage. If the company is a start-up determining its product or service mechanics, or perhaps an established company designing an extension to an existing product, I can definitely see the need to have everyone at the same physical address; the architectural stage is a crucial time for a company, involving brainstorming sessions and other face-to-face meetings. Bouncing ideas off one another is critical to the success of a finely designed product or service.

At the end of the day, I think the companies that implement Open Source methods into their business practices will let people work from afar because it gives them the best chance of landing the talent they need. Most of these people can travel to the office on an as-needed basis if the company deems it necessary. But to dismiss telecommuting out-of-hand is a potential critical mistake in getting a job done well. Of course, every situation is different, and one must deal with it on a case-by-case basis. Fortunately, Open Source is thriving and pushing us to work differently.

More Stories By Brent Marinaccio

Brent Marinaccio has been with HotLinuxJobs since its inception in early 2000. HotLinuxJobs is a recruiting firm that specializes in the placement of Linux/Open Source professionals. As director of open source recruiting, Brent has gained considerable insight in the subtleties of recruiting in the Open Source world.

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