[Executive Edge] Mastering the art of telecommuting

Ezra Ferraz

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We no longer need to watch time (and money) pass us idly by, stuck in traffic or stranded due to floods. We can telecommute

If “time is money,” as the old adage goes, Philippine entrepreneurs and businesspeople may be losing a significant amount of cash. We are subject to a host of forces that part us from our valuable time, such as typhoons and traffic.

But we no longer need to watch time (and money) pass us idly by, stuck in the middle of EDSA or in a subdivision that’s been slightly flooded. We can – as is the growing trend in other countries – telecommute.

I recently spoke to Candice Lopez-Quimpo, the editor in chief of Homegrown, about how entrepreneurs and businesspeople can effectively work virtually like her team does. Lopez-Quimpo summarized these ideas into 10 key points.

1. Determine the extent to which telecommuting is right for you

“Working remotely is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” Lopez-Quimpo said. “And I imagine that not every type of business or industry can accommodate a telecommuting setup.”

Still, many Philippine firms would benefit from some form of a telecommuting policy. Lopez-Quimpo recommended that companies “identify certain situations (factors) that should allow for flex-work privileges.”

It could be as little as one day a week – perhaps on the day that the employee has coding for his vehicle. Or telecommuting could be reserved strictly for emergency situations, like severe rains and floods. What matters is that the choice to telecommute is made after carefully considering the possible benefits and costs.

2. Standardize telecommuting policies

A telecommuting policy is like any other company policy: It must be written down and understood by all stakeholders for it to be effective. It also must be fair. In this way, both the company and its employees can be held accountable to a policy that all parties find reasonable.

In the words of Lopez-Quimpo: “A telecommuting policy should not be an afterthought to your organization’s processes. While it may free you from certain limitations, it is up to you to define the parameters to make your operations function efficiently. Be consistent with your policies, and manage the line between firmness and flexibility. Your remote team should still function as a unit; do what you need to do to achieve that.”

3. Hire go-getters

As you start to build your team around a solid telecommuting policy, you may want to consider hiring go-getters. These are people who take initiative – often they are leaders in other organizations or run their own ventures.

Though your team need not be entirely composed of go-getters, Lopez-Quimpo recommends that you give special consideration to these people, as they already know how to prosper in a virtual setting, work independently, and motivate themselves. Luckily, the Philippines has a small but growing community of self-starters, including freelancers, consultants, and entrepreneurs.

Though these groups are diverse, Lopez-Quimpo said that they are unified in the fact that they are “agile” and “progressive.” The ones on her team “think on their feet, are not bound by traditional job descriptions, and have a sense of ownership of Homegrown.”

Lopez-Quimpo believes you can attract such people through the right management style. Instead of micromanaging, leaders of virtual teams must “go with the flow (in a manner of speaking.” To get to this point, managers must first be successful at “ensuring that everyone is on the same page” by “constantly reinforcing the company vision.”

4. Define timelines and milestones

Even though Homegrown is an online magazine that publishes continuously, Lopez-Quimpo still makes it a point to have “issues.” This makes it easier for her to “project what we will need months ahead,” for three central stages: pre-production, production, and publication.

Lopez-Quimpo even breaks the business aspect of Homegrown into projects, and she advises other entrepreneurs do this as well. “Looking at work broken down into projects (whether it’s an event, a presentation, our recent rebranding) benefits us, and works within our telecommuting arrangement, because even if we are not logging in hours, projects are defined by timelines and milestones.”

According to Lopez-Quimpo, the timelines and milestones allow the room for flexibility, while keeping all members focused on a common goal.

5. Clearly lay out the deliverables

As editor-in-chief, Lopez-Quimpo deals with new contributing writers all the time, all managed remotely, and some of whom she has met only virtually. In these cases, she emphasizes the need to keep things as professional as possible. “There are contracts in place, assignments are given using detailed briefs, deliverables all written down clearly. We also encourage questions to be raised if they have concerns.”

Even though formalities are a little more relaxed for the core Homegrown team, deliverables are still explicitly laid out. This way, employees have to follow through on what they said they would do; in other words, they have to deliver.

The Homegrown team at one of their meetings. Left to right (standing) - Ivy Pangilinan, Kathleen Largo, Danella Yaptinchay, Selena Salang, Rachel Davis, Candice Quimpo (seated), Carlo Abueg. Photo by Art Alera

6. Avail – but don’t be fooled – by freeware

“Free” grabs the attention of consumers. This is true of both brick-and-mortar stores as well as the Internet. With so much Freeware available, many directed at freelancers and entrepreneurs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Lopez-Quimpo cautions against using so many freeware applications, because then they cost us in lost time and effectiveness – they spread us thin, in a way.

She said, “In the beginning, we were trying out all this freeware. Later, we realized that we just need to pick out a few that really work and stick to them.” In this regard, Lopez-Quimpo advises to not be afraid to splurge on premium versions of freeware.

“We have Trello for most of our project management needs, Google Docs to consolidate and collaborate on documents, Skype for voice / text chats, Dropbox for more cloud storage, Pocket and Evernote for sharing files and sites,” Lopez-Quimpo said. “The point is, when choosing tech support applications, choose according to your needs.”

7. Guard against miscommunication

Communication in Filipino culture is rich with subtlety – for better and for worse. As an often cited example, sometimes we say “yes,” even when what we really mean is “no.” But since telecommuting relies so much on virtual interaction, you need to make it so that there is no room for any misunderstandings.

According to Lopez-Quimpo, “We are able to make Homegrown work because our lines of communication are open all the time, and the options are varied: email, text, mobile calls, Skype, Facebook chat – whatever it takes to pin someone you need down.”

But it’s more than just keeping the communication lines open. When they do communicate, Lopez-Quimpo emphasized the need to listen well, act politely, and above all, communicate directly.

“Being straightforward doesn’t mean being cold or brusque,” she said. “It means eliminating distracting ideas so that your recipient knows what you expect from him, especially when you are communicating virtually: Do you need a reply ASAP? Is it a memo? Are you setting a meeting? Don’t let your recipient second-guess your intentions.”

8. Be personally invested in the lives of your colleagues

Several studies have shown that – more than other cultures – Filipinos view the workplace as an opportunity to make meaningful relationships. Telecommuting need not be the end to office friendships.

Lopez-Quimpo explained it best: “Telecommuting for Homegrown works because we engage with each other in real life. We’re not a team of strangers. Admittedly, depending on one’s position, you’re bound to work with someone more than the others, but we do have an effort to have at least a monthly sit-down. That’s important. It allows us to take a personal interest in each other’s lives.”

By building a culture where employees are invested in one another, they, in extension, become more invested in the success of the company.

9. Avail of professional meeting spaces

Even if your company is telecommuting, you need always not meet in your manager’s living room or your local coffeehouse for your meetings. For more formal meetings, Lopez-Quimpo recommends making use of office spaces that are widely available to use on short notice.

Her Homegrown team has made frequent use of the coworking space, Co.lab in Kapitolyo, as well as the conference room at offices of friends, peers, and affiliates. In speaking of their benefits, Lopez-Quimpo said, “For us, Co.lab’s coworking setup or an affiliate’s conference room have been very useful, particularly when we have a series of meetings or a long agenda. Meeting with suppliers, potential collaborators, and even new recruits is usually better in a professional workplace.”

Such spaces are not in short supply in the Philippines. There are other coworking spaces, such as aSpace Manila, Location 63 in Cebu, and 47 East in Quezon City. There is also Regus, which provides flexible workspaces in corporate settings across Metro Manila and Cebu.

By holding meetings here, teams can gather at a location that is convenient to most of their employees. Much more importantly, these workspaces still have a professional atmosphere and all the essentials of a modern office.

10. Motivate your team with meaningful work

Lopez-Quimpo’s team is not just limited to the deliverables they initially lay out. On the contrary, they are free to propose new projects, initiatives, and campaigns as inspiration strikes them. In other words, employees have complete agency: They can help shape the big picture direction of the company.

As she puts it: “When we talk about empowerment, it’s not just about our audience – every individual who works with us has the capacity to use their skills and contribute greatly. If your remote workforce is driven by what they can do, imagine the possibilities. The job description expands. It’s the kind of flux that I find exciting.”

Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz


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