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The Power of Partial Telecommuting

In today's Gamasutra cover feature, Dan Higgins proposes an argument for partial telecommuting in the game development workplace; in other words, saving time and resources by occasionally working from home.

It’s not surprising that many companies, including video game companies, see challenges in offering a partial telecommuting program. Just the word “telecommuting” can stir up disturbing images of empty cubicles, unattended water-coolers, and lonely memos floating down hallways like tumbleweeds.

On the surface, allowing telecommuting seems like a win for the employee and a loss for employers. This doesn’t have to be the case. If we recognize the strengths, weaknesses, benefits, and pitfalls of telecommuting, we can develop a productive solution to make it not only a win-win situation, but one of the most attractive and powerful programs offered by any game company.

It’s important to note that telecommuting isn’t for everyone or every job. There are some positions that require an employee to be onsite 100% of the time. To make things more complex, different jobs have different challenges to overcome to make telecommuting work well. For the scope of this article we’ll be looking specifically at game programmers and telecommuting, although many of the solutions presented can be applied to other disciplines.

Why is Telecommuting Bad?

Let’s face it; there are a lot of compelling reasons a game company might not want a telecommuting program. While many of these problems have solutions, it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers. For telecommuting to work, it takes flexibility on the part of the company, employee, and even the other onsite teammates. Problems with telecommuting include the following:

  • Slackers – Do telecommuters spend their time watching TV or playing games instead of working? How does a company know if the employee is not being as productive as they would be in-office?
  • Communication – Will the employee at home be able to effectively communicate with the team, management, and other home-employees? How will meetings work? Since email is a poor vehicle for communication, what will be an effective communication method?
  • Security – What are the issues about having work assets at home? Our company is protected on the internet, but how adequately is our employee at home? When data is streaming back and forth from work, is it being listened to by a hacker who could leak the game code online?
  • Special Treatment Syndrome – There is a reason we don’t post salaries up on the intranet for all to see. People who telecommute can sometimes be resented by onsite employees, and even become the scapegoat for many bugs and crashes that show up.
  • Potential Cost – Depending on how telecommuting is set up, it can either save money, or cost a bit of money. For instance, a VPN network should be setup, and any development-related software used from home must have valid licenses.
  • Eligibility – Companies tend to have a few low-productivity employees, and a few superstar employees (typical bell-curve scenario). What happens to the superstars who telecommute? Are they less effective than if they were in office? What about the employees who are rated at the bottom third of the team? Should they too be allowed to participate in a telecommuting program? Is there resentment within the team at those who telecommute and those who do not?

Why is Telecommuting Good?

With so many reasons why telecommuting is a problem, who would ever want to offer a program? It’s easy to see why telecommuting can be scary to game companies. Imagining un-showered employees working whenever they feel like it, missing phone calls, being on the outside of all the cliques, and becoming just a paycheck would be scary, if it were true.

Fortunately, the reality is typically quite different. Telecommuters who know how to telecommute work hard to ensure that telecommuting works for both the company and the employee. There are many benefits to any game company in providing a telecommuting program, some of which include:

Commuting Distance
Telecommuting is expanding the distance an employee can live from their job. It’s not uncommon for urban commuters to travel one hour or more to work in the morning. That’s two-plus hours a day spent in transit, or ten hours a week. This is unproductive time for both employee and employer. Most people would prefer to spend those ten hours working rather than sitting in traffic, burning up high-cost gas, putting wear and tear on their vehicles, or dealing with the schedules and travel issues of public transportation.

Talent Attraction
There are superstar level workers who are looking for game companies that allow partial telecommuting. The existence of a partial telecommuting program not only is a key benefit to some employees, but also demonstrates that the company is both progressive and flexible.

Recently a colleague of mine had to choose between two game companies that were heavily recruiting him. One company was close by, but wouldn’t allow telecommuting, while the other company was much further away and would allow him to telecommute 3 days a week. Both companies had a desperate need for his unique skill set (he was in the superstar realm), but because telecommuting was an important factor in his life, he chose the company that was much further away.

In an industry whose products go from “decent” to “legendary” based on the staff they hire, it’s important for companies to know that for some candidates, telecommuting can make or break deals.

Companies that offer partial telecommuting should be proud of that, and find a way to communicate that to applicants. People on the job hunt who value telecommuting will most likely put companies who offer it at the top of their application lists.

Employee Happiness
The benefits of employee happiness can be difficult to track, but few would dispute that happy employees are preferred over unhappy employees. The problem is that many companies end up thinking, “Shouldn’t my employees be happy with our company with or without telecommuting?” Sure, they may love your company, but for many, telecommuting has a dramatic impact on their quality of life beyond how a company’s environment can affect it.

There really isn’t any other company benefit that can match being able to eat lunch with your family instead of hitting a burger joint, or taking your dog for a walk at lunch instead leaving it alone in the house while you’re at work. These kinds of results from telecommuting dramatically reduce stress on the employee and their families, resulting in much happier and consequently, more productive employees.

Happy game-related employees who appreciate telecommuting are going to be motivated to make telecommuting work. That in turn means that they have to work harder than most, communicate better than most, and be pro-active in knowing what‘s going on at the company. Make no mistake; successful telecommuters don’t disappear from the company view, in fact, if they do fade into the background of the company, the employee needs to learn techniques on how to telecommute effectively.

The key to understanding the magnitude of “increased happiness” for a telecommuting employee is simple. A colleague of mine who recently began telecommuting to avoid a 3+ hour commute per day summed it up perfectly. When asked what he thought about telecommuting, he said “The quality of life difference is amazing.” An employee who has a high quality of life is going to work to protect that benefit.

While statistics may be difficult to generate from having a “happier” employee, it’s difficult to overestimate the impact a very happy, highly motivated employee has on a company. Happy employees are usually very loyal, and are more likely to be looking out for the company’s interests.

Flexible Employees
The cliché, “One hand washes the other” has a lot of weight in telecommuting. The flexibility extended by companies is often rewarded with added flexibility on the part of an employee. For example:

A critical bug in the game pops up and needs to be resolved by the next day. The best person to resolve the issue is Joe, a single dad.

Non-Telecommuter response:
“I have to pick up my son, I can’t stay to fix this, sorry!”

Joe would love to help, but as an onsite employee, just can’t. People have unavoidable family responsibilities, and the problem would have to fall to someone else on the team who was available.

Telecommuter response:
“I have to pick up my son, but once he goes to bed, I’ll work all night if need-be to make sure it’s fixed before anyone comes in tomorrow.”

Joe as a telecommuter has the ability to balance work and family responsibilities by being able to put an extreme amount of effort when needed, above and beyond what most other employees could offer. Without the company’s flexibility, this wouldn’t be possible.

Keep That Talent
If telecommuting makes such a difference in the quality of life for people, it’s going to be difficult for those shiny happy people to look elsewhere for a job. The opposite is also true, where game companies that don’t offer telecommuting can easily lose employees for companies that do offer it. The worst time to realize you need a telecommuting plan is when your valued employees give their notice.

Crunch Management
Crunch time is dreaded by almost everyone in the game industry. It puts an enormous amount of stress on the employee, and especially their relations with their families. It disrupts the rhythm of their households, affecting not just the employee’s schedules, work-load and stress levels, but those of everyone in their family. Long or restrictive crunch cycles can easily lead to employees looking for other jobs. Anyone who’s been through a brutal crunch has probably heard teammates remark “I can’t do a crunch like that again,” or “My spouse is really angry that I can’t help out with the kids.”

The bad side of crunching is that it’s an almost unavoidable part of being in a game company. The good side is that it’s got a lot of potential solutions. One such solution is to allow partial telecommuting. The difference in stress-levels of employees once they telecommute will be surprising to most companies. With partial telecommuting, crunch has a much lower impact on the rhythm or routines of an employee’s household.

Savings
Both employee and company can save money through partial telecommuting. The employee saves money on travel expenses such as gas, car wear and tear, parking or public transportation, as well as possibly saving on food expenses. The company can save money on rent by having a smaller office, desk-sharing, or even using a conference room and laptops for the days telecommuters are onsite. A minor savings would also be that food during crunch and drinks provided by the company would be reduced by having more employees offsite.


How Do We Make This Work?

There are a variety of options a company has when constructing a telecommuting policy in the game industry. These tend to consist of two main ingredients. The first is how to overcome the issues that make telecommuting bad. The second part is to form a plan of action for the company.

First, let’s examine the problems companies face and how to solve them.

Slackers
One main concern game companies have with telecommuters is that the employee might be loafing. The solution to this may already exist within a company. When companies conduct employee reviews, how do they gauge the success of the employee? Is it the amount of time they sit in their chair at work, the amount of code they produce, or more intangibles such as how they seem to always find a solution to whatever grievous problems face the team?

A company needs to know how effective an employee is. Most employees (hopefully) follow, or at least participate in some type of scheduling. Is the employee meeting their deadlines? Are they successfully completing their tasks, or is there a drop in performance between their work in-office and their work at home?

The good news is, in most companies, bad work can’t hide. This applies equally to offsite employees. If they consistently can’t meet their schedule, or they aren’t producing high quality work, it’s a clear indication that there is a productivity issue that needs to be discussed with the employee.

Communication
Years ago, communication would be a major problem in telecommuting, but with the technology of today, remote communication is part of everyday life. Advances such as fixed monthly fees for unlimited long distance calls, instant messaging, web cameras, email, group voice communication software, and desktop-control software like remote assistance means that very little, if anything, is lost between communicators. There are times when a person needs to be physical, providing a handshake or a pat on the back to communicate, but for many, having vocal communication gets the majority of the job done. Certainly a person working from home has to be willing to be on the phone, and the team at work needs to be receptive to talking on the phone also.

As many of us have found out the hard way, using email or instant messaging is usually a poor method of communication.

Technology is the key word. Many of the offsite issues are resolved using technology. For example, programmers can have their machines taken over by someone remotely while they talk on the phone. Colleagues of mine tend to do code-reviews remotely in this fashion. In addition, many iterative steps such as, making quick build changes for a designer can happen remotely. Offsite programmers can VPN in, remote desktop to a machine at work, make the necessary code changes, build, and put the build up on the server for the designer.

Meetings are an issue depending on the situation. If there are one or two telecommuters, it’s easy to put them on speaker phone during a meeting. If there are many offsite employees, then meetings can be conducted via voice software used by many people in online gaming, or even specifically designed remote meeting software packages.

Working from home can actually help many people be more productive by making some of them be less social. Sounds strange, but we all know people who are very social, and like to mingle amongst the team most of the day. While being very social isn’t usually a bad thing, it’s generally true that if a person who spends much of their time talking with others, spends more time working instead of talking, the more productive they tend to be. An example would be the person who happens to casually drop by into your office to chat about the Sox game last night. Working from home makes these types of distractions and interruptions much more difficult.

Special Treatment Syndrome
While many people realize that at some point in their life they will need the normal company rules bent or changed to meet a special situation they find themselves in, some people believe that they will never fall into this group. The people who resent others who telecommute may find it difficult to change their outlook unless a company plan combats this.

If, when determining employee eligibility for a telecommuting program, this issue is taken into account, much of the anger and resentment can be defused. After all, if the resentful employee chooses not to meet the eligibility requirements, who should they be angry with?

Security
This is the issue some companies just can’t be flexible on. Some game companies, no matter what, can’t allow any assets offsite, no matter how secure. If that’s the case, then telecommuting and its benefits just aren’t for that company. It’s an issue that should be weighed carefully however, as many employees can go above and beyond the call of duty when they can put in extra hours from home and on the weekends.

If a game company is willing to have offsite assets, if they are secured, then the solutions are pretty simple. First, every employee has to have a firewall at home. Just as the company on the internet is protected via a firewall, the employee needs to have a similar level of security. This shouldn’t be a causal “be sure to have a firewall on your machine” type of security; firewalls need to be on 100% of the time. It can take only a matter of seconds unsecured on the internet to have a machine compromised.

Communication with work should be done via secure means. VPN should be encrypted, and off-site source control should be done either through VPN (admittedly slow), or through 3rd party secure software products such as Source Offsite. If done properly, assets can be as safe as they are at the company.

Potential Costs
Some potential costs focus mainly on the cost of software and perhaps the cost of a machine for the employee at home (if the company provides it). An effective way to remove this cost barrier is to provide high-performance laptops, some of which are giant, desktop-like ones, like a Sager model.


Eligibility
This is a complex topic for a company to consider, but there are a number of viable options. In general, three criteria usually apply when considering who’s eligible:

  1. Do they have a compelling reason? Do they need help balancing family and work, have an illness, an injury, or a recent childbirth? Do they have a monster commute, or one that provides a great deal of stress on the employee? Is it a deal-breaker benefit that they can’t live without?
  2. Will they give back more to the company in exchange for the ability to partially telecommute? This usually is in the form of being able to occasionally work extra, sometimes even on a weekend to solve critical issues, or simply to put in more hours per week than required by onsite employees.
  3. Are they one of the critical team members? Sure, we’re all critical, but are they one of the really exceptional ones worth bending over backwards for?

There are many questions when determining eligibility, many of which are answered by the above criteria. Questions include:

  • Can single people telecommute? – Yes, see reason #2 or #3.
  • Can employees who have a 5 minute commute, telecommute? Yes, see reason #2 or #3.
  • Can employees reviewed in the bottom 3rd of performance assessment telecommute? Yes – See reason #2.
  • Can they be a leader from home? – Yes, many telecommuters perform well in leadership roles from home. Sometimes that’s because they are a superstar who has had a special plan drawn up for them, or because they become more pro-active by working from home, or simply that they put in so much extra time from home that they become one of the most productive people in the company. Regardless of the reason, with or without a formal leadership title, expect and encourage them to be a powerhouse from home.
  • Can managers telecommute? - Managers are a tough question. How can you manage when you aren’t there to physically pat someone on the back, or have a closed-door meeting if needed? A good strategy for this is to have a manager and assistant manager. There must always be a manager or assistant manager onsite everyday, but otherwise, they can work out a 2-3 day rotation routine to work from home. There are always times, crisis situations, and days when they must both be in, and good managers understand this.
  • Can all five programmers in a five programmer department telecommute all five days? – The short answer for this is no. OK, sure, some companies can do this, but for the majority, this is a bad idea. Let’s tackle this question in two parts. First, can anyone telecommute 5 days a week? Unless someone logistically can’t come into the office, then programmers should not be offsite for more than 4 days a week. Having 1 day a week of face-to-face time, provides an enormous benefit to the team in terms of bonding, and resolving any issues that had proved too difficult to resolve remotely. The second part is already answered, if 1 programmer shouldn’t work 5 days a week at home, then 5 certainly should not.
  • Ok, if not five days a week, then can all five programmers in a five programmer department telecommute four days a week? Probably not. Again, some companies can make this work and tend to design their workflows around this concept; however, for the majority of the world, we need to have some people onsite all the time for in-office coverage. If a company staggers people, it can ensure in-office representation of the programming team. This isn’t an insurmountable issue, but it should be noted that having a minimum of 1 programmer onsite all the time is important for resolving issues with the rest of the company. In addition, it’s recommended that a manager or assistant manager be onsite everyday, especially for multi-department resolution of issues.
  • What if two people in one department are approved for telecommuting but they can’t arrange mutually compatible days? (i.e., so they can never both attend the same departmental meetings) – The methods of team communication apply here. Finding a way to conduct meetings that include telecommuters is essential. Don’t be afraid to explore all of the tools available for multi-remote user meetings, especially those designed especially for remote meetings. This is a problem that some companies make their livelihood off solving, so be sure to fully explore the options and pick the right one for you.
  • Are there temporary telecommuting options, which are only available for specific durations? I.e., the birth of a child. – Yes, see reason #1.
  • What if an employee meets all requirements, but just wouldn’t be productive at home. Left on their own, they’d be less productive. – No. Everyone is motivated and works optimally under different conditions. For some, working from home makes them less productive than they would be in the office. The bottom line here should be that if they aren’t productive, then they need to move back onsite. A superstar who isn’t effective at home isn’t being a superstar, and a person who isn’t working hard for the company isn’t giving the company a benefit by having them work from home. The person in question should be talked with, given recommendations on how to be an effective telecommuter, and a chance to correct the situation. If they still fail to be effective, they need to then be onsite.

Plan

Once many of the questions and issues have been resolved by a game company, they are then faced with deciding how to implement a telecommuting plan.

Below are some potential plan foundations:

  • Special Case – The typical model for game companies is to allow telecommuting on a case by case basis. Employees who approach management wishing to become a partial telecommuter and have a convincing argument or offer that is in the company’s best interest tend to be approved for a trial run. The good part of this plan is that people who really value telecommuting and need it to balance their lives are the ones who approach management. It means they believe they have a situation or a plan to meet the company’s eligibility requirements. The downside is that some people will have to be declined. Take the person who wants to improve their yoga skills. Let’s also suppose that they aren’t willing to work any more for the company in exchange for telecommuting. To make matters even worse, this guy ranks in the bottom 66% of the company on reviews. Since not only do they not have a compelling reason (yoga instead of massive commute, sickness, kids, etc.), and because there isn’t a clear benefit to the game company in terms of added productivity (refuses to work more hours), and finally, they aren’t ranked as a critical priority for employee retention, then their request should be declined. Unfortunately, when these people hear “no,” they might become angry with the company or the other telecommuters. In this case, it’s important to communicate that the employee can become eligible, if they so choose, by putting in more effort when working from home.
  • Company days – A clever solution is to allow 1-2 days a week to be free telecommute days for anyone in the game company. Anyone who wishes to telecommute can do so on those days. This works very well since people can, even if just 1-2 days a week, decrease their stress levels. This avoids much of the “clique” problem some teams face since the program is offered to everyone whose job allows for telecommuting. That in turn means, that companies can also apply the “special case” plan on top of the company days plan without many of the “special treatment” feelings other teammates might have. Again, the main issue here is coverage. Be sure to spread out which 1-2 days programmers work from home so there are always programmers onsite. In addition, be sure there is one day that everyone is in-office.
  • Office Sharing – Another effective method, which is tailored to saving the company money on rent and food, is to implement desk sharing. Employees can alternate time in the office, perhaps both working 2 days a week in-office, 3 from home. Most effective telecommuters see home as the place they crank out their work, and onsite days are more for communication, or because they are required. This means, they are much less attached to their at-work office space, and can tolerate cubes, using a conference room, or sharing desks much more easily than full-time onsite employees.
  • Public program – Using the eligibility criteria, companies can create a telecommuting policy to offer to all those who meet the requirements. These requirements could include increased workloads for employees in exchange for days at home, such as for every day at home, the employee agrees to add 1-2 extra hours to their schedules. Having a clear list of requirements and offering it everyone is the most effective way to remove any potential “special treatment” feelings other teammates could have. It also sends a clear message that the employee is responsible for making sure that telecommuting ends up being a win for the company, and not just a benefit to the employee.

How to Optimize Telecommuting

When telecommuting works well, it creates a powerful work force. People are happier, working harder than they would in-office, loyal, grateful, and determined to make the program a success. Some recommendations on how to optimize telecommuting in the game biz would be:

  • Appreciation – Employees need to know they aren’t 2nd class citizens if they work from home. This means, they should not take a pay cut to work from home, or be looked down upon because they don’t commute in everyday. They should be given the respect they earn, equal to the respect they would get if they were in-office.
  • Communicate Expectations – Employees need to know they are expected to perform at or above their current in-office level. To do this requires extra effort to perform at their current level. They will need to use many forms of communication, especially voice communication on an everyday basis. The employee should be educated in what is expected from them, and taught how to telecommute effectively.
  • Tools – Provide the tools employees need to work well from home. This includes VPN, FTP, machines for remote desktop, even high-performance laptops or development kits if needed. We want employees armed with as many time-saving and performance enhancing tools as we can to ensure the only thing holding the employee back is perhaps their horoscope.
  • Team Unity – It’s important to remind employees that telecommuting programs help everyone. They are designed to not only make life better for the employees but to also increase the company’s profitability. If on-site teammates have issues or feel resentment towards the telecommuters, everyone involved should discuss solutions to those issues.

Conclusion

Telecommuting is concept that many game companies are beginning to embrace. It might not be for everyone or for every company, but for most game companies, it provides a large benefit to both companies and employees. Companies planning to offer a telecommuting program need to remember to have a great plan, communicate expectations well, and expect great things from your telecommuters. As a result, companies will be amazed at the power of partial telecommuting.

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