More than 3 million Americans telecommute. That’s 73 percent more virtual workers than we had in 2005.

The only thing growing faster than the number of telecommuters might be the number of debates being held on the merits of telecommuting.

I know CPAs who swear by it. They’ve hired talented staff members and worked with valuable clients without ever meeting them in person, and they say they’re better off for it.

On the other end of the spectrum are companies like Yahoo! that have banned the practice outright, sparking passionate discussions about the pros and cons of telecommuting.

Here’s the problem: There’s no absolute right or wrong. Telecommuting works for some organizations and not at all for others.

The differentiator, says Michelle Golden, is culture.

“Culture happens whether we set out to create one or not,” Golden said at the recent and awesome Sage Summit in D.C. “Communication and trust set the tone.”

Check that: They don’t just set the tone. They determine whether your telecommuting policy will work or not.

“The culture of our virtual work environment should promote clarity and autonomy,” Michelle said. “For virtual workers to succeed, we need to clarify roles and set expectations of quality. Once we do that, how we get there shouldn’t matter.”

Put another way: Here’s what you must do, and here’s what success looks like to me. Now go do it.

Michelle made two other points that I think are particularly important. Without these, telecommuting absolutely, positively will not work.

  1. Clarity is about more than roles. Telecommuters also need to be clear about the organization’s mission — it’s “why” — and how their jobs contribute to it. “Workers need to be clear on your expectations, and those need to be aligned with the customer,” Michelle said.
     
  2. Trust is the tie that binds. “You have to trust that people will do what you ask them to do,” Michelle said. “… You can manage results, but you can’t manage people. They have to manage themselves.”

What’s your view on telecommuting? Do you allow it? What works best for you

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