Enabling more flexible work arrangements—in the form of teleworking, telecommuting, virtual working or whatever your company calls it—can boost your company's environmental sustainability, save on real estate and operating costs, and create happier and more productive employees. No wonder telecommuting is on the rise. In 2009, more than 34 million adults telecommuted at least occasionally, according to Forrester Research, a number they predict will rise to 63 million by 2016.
These swelling ranks of telecommuters—with those who work from home one to four days a week leading the growth—are forcing companies to "expand their digital footprints, harness new social software, crisply define their culture" and more. One thing this already means is that managers must learn how to effectively deal with this changing workforce.
As a manager in this new world, here’s several things you can do to create a successful program that encourages productivity as well as satisfied employees.
Take Stock of Your Familiarity in Managing Remote Workers
The manager is the key component around which telecommuting succeeds or fails, says Rick Albiero, CEO of remote workforce consultancy the Telecommuting Advantage Group. Success depends on other factors too, but if the manager does not support telecommuting, it simply won't work.
There may be many reasons a manager is distrustful of telecommuting but the phenomenon of what Albiero calls "presentism"—that is, only trusting and rewarding the folks you see at their computer—is a major factor.
Some managers, especially those who count themselves among the Baby Boomer generation, may have trouble accepting this new world of work, says Michael Dziak, COO of e-Work, a training provider that focuses on navigating evolving workplaces. Older managers are far likelier to have studied management techniques that were based on industrialistic thinking. Such managers may believe, I know someone is working because he is at his desk. In the past, if you were not physically in the office, for many jobs, the work would stop. Work was seen as linear and almost analogous to a factory assembly line, Dziak says. An invoice would come in from a vendor, for example, and then be passed to another individual who was required to do something with it before she passed it along. So it's understandable that that mindset got reinforced.
Still, the "if you're at your desk, you're working" was always a false premise, Dziak says. If you turned that person's computer around, you might find that he's actually playing solitaire.
Not to mention that knowledge workers spend only 35% of their time at their desks anyway, according to studies by strategic consultancy DEGW.
"Managers need to manage people by objectives and output rather than by people being in their seats," he says. "That has to change."
And there's no shame in not having the skills oriented to the world of virtual work. You will almost certainly need training and to learn these new management skills, he says.
Take Planning Seriously
Taking stock of why you are creating a telecommuting program, how exactly it will work, and proactively addressing issues around remote work are keys to ensuring success. Jill Adams, CEO of HR Telecommuting, a remote work strategy consultancy, helps clients plan for a new telecommuting program with several steps. First, Adams administers a diagnostic tool that covers areas such as factors motivating the creation of a new telecommuting program. These include both internal motivators, such as attracting and retaining talent, and external factors, such as general disaster planning and rising gas prices. The tool also covers issues such as how many employees will participate in the pilot program and for how long, the type of responsibility the business will take on for setting up employees' home offices, and other factors that affect a telecommuting program.
Beyond that, she says that in order to create a successful telework program, businesses must create plans around five important areas: the strategy you use to accomplish the program, including what the program actually looks like; policy; training; metrics around output; and the technology you need to work.
That said, these elements vary widely. "Since each company is unique," she says, “there is no one-size-fits all solution."
Related to the above is the idea of companywide adoption, which Albiero says is key. "You need a high adoption rate among managers; having some managers wanting and supporting a virtual work program and some resisting it will [generate] inequality issues for the employees they oversee," he says. Which in turn means "missing out on creating more employee satisfaction, which is one of the main goals."
Dziak also believes that a telework program must be companywide in order to succeed. "Unless you do it really carefully and totally there will be holdouts," he says. And those pockets of resistance most certainly decrease chances of success.
"Nobody said this is easy," he says. "But if a company expects to compete in tech-enhanced collaborative environment they have to bring the people with them," he says. "And they have to find a way to do it without them kicking and screaming." As a result: That means some serious internal marketing.
Telework: Who Can Do It, How to Structure It
Not every employee is eligible to telecommute. Even among those who do, few will be work-from-home employees 100% of the time. Some jobs are simply unsuited for telecommuting and some require at least partial presence. Moreover, some face-to-face or in-office presence may be required to establish team connections and so on. These are all issues that should be addressed in the planning process, says Albiero.
An important aspect of planning is looking at which individuals have portable tasks, says Dziak. He gives the example of a programmer who can write code from home, Starbucks, or a hotel room, but who needs to be at the server site in order to install the code. "We don't advocate that someone works at home on a particular day; we say they should work in a way that maximizes his or her productivity," he says. That might mean the employee is gone from the office for a whole week at a time but comes into the office when the sales team is in town.
And then there are some employees for whom telecommuting may not be the best solution. For example, employees who are new to a job may need greater initial in-person connections with other team members in order to fully acclimate to company culture and workflow. Some are inexperienced and not yet mature enough to work on their own. Other issues Dziak points out that need addressing: What kind of home office can someone create? Will their family be supportive, or will family members see the person as being "home" and vie for the employee's attention?
Regardless of what you decide, the telework program needs to be communicated very clearly, says Albiero. "Explain why the company is implementing the program, the program's structure, any information and documentation that's available, how to apply, the guidelines and requirements for participation (stressing that it's not a "right" to participate and that the employees/workgroup's performance is still the top priority), and how management practices will change," he says.
You also need to provide ongoing communication. Share which employees who are working remotely, when they are doing so, and changes—as they happen—to the program. A key piece of all this: Do not leave out your full-time in-office workers. "Do everything possible to eliminate areas that may result in equity issues among employees or create a two-group culture—remote workers and non-remote workers," he says.
Address Technology Issues
Not surprisingly, ensuring the compatibility of technology is paramount to ensuring a teleworking program's success. When setting up employees to take advantage of a virtual work program, you want people to use the same software, and the same communication and collaboration tools, says Albiero.
You need to ask yourself: How will different types of meetings be conducted and what technology do you need to carry that out? It's important to define which meetings will be conducted through, for example, audio conferencing or video conferencing (which can go a long ways towards establishing that personal connection/recognition that can feel lacking with other tools) or other collaboration tools? How will folks share files? And how do you ensure compatibility issues in all of these areas?
These are just a few of the areas that need close attention in order to create open and robust communication, which of course, requires more than technology.
Address the Human Side of Communication Issues
Last but most certainly not least: Give some serious attention to the communication issues that surround telework programs. These issues vary depending on whether the employee is a full-time remote worker who lives in another part of the country, an employee who works at home on Fridays, or the telecommuter who works at home whenever there's no pressing need to come into the office.
But whatever the situation, you need to rethink communication flow. Because there isn't that "bumping into each other in the office," says Albiero, managers must be far more deliberate in addressing communication issues.
"Communication is big," Adams says, and one of the main areas that need attention is workflow. Does everyone know where to get their assignments and associated supporting documents? Does everyone know what the workflow is and who needs to be alerted if things are held up? And how to reprioritize when things don't go as planned? What if someone else is late on a deliverable on which my work depends? Adams says that the answers to these questions, like everything else in a teleworking program, depend on the unique nature of your company's culture, business, and so on, but that answering those questions is key to getting everybody on the same page.
It may seem like a lot more work—all this up-front addressing of communication issues that happen far more naturally in the office—but the upside is increased efficiency. Albiero sees this especially in the area of meetings. He speaks of one client who has now instituted a meeting format that is structured to allow for the first five minutes of all meetings to be "small-talk minutes." Thus, everyone knows they needn't call in for those minutes unless they want to join. That bonding time may appeal to virtual workers who need the personal connection, but for those who are swamped with other work, and those who simply feel such time is "wasted time," the extra five minutes gives them more productivity. The same client has instituted a policy to end all meetings 10 minutes before the half-hour or hour (depending on the length of the meeting) to allow for employees precious time before what may be their next meeting.
Regardless of what approach you take, says Albiero, meetings should be structured to clearly acknowledge the challenges of the virtual worker. Is it clear who should speak when? Can the dialed-in employees actually hear what others are saying? Has enough attention been paid to how the technology is working out and furthermore, how to use it well? One of the most frustrating things for an employee who is dialed in is not being able to hear the conversation or who is never quite sure of the appropriate time to speak.
Getting creative helps: One helpful fix can be as simple as using a webcam in the conference room and pointing it at the people around the table. Remote employees can see how other people respond to what they say. A simple—and inexpensive—fix, but one that can make a big difference.
In addition, managers must be cognizant the different go-to methods employees use to share information and pay special attention to making sure recommended communication processes are understood and easy to use, says Dziak. For example, some people's primary mode of communication is texting, some instant messaging, and for some e-mail. You may not want a top-down mandated communication approach in all areas, but having open discussions around individual preferences (and why those exist) and having at least overarching recommendations and specific guidelines is important.
And then there's your own interaction with each employee. It may seem self-evident, but keeping an open communication channel with employees when they are telecommuting is different than a traditional office worker, says Adams. They can't see you and you can't see them, so you have to make the effort to reach out more frequently, have regularly scheduled check-ins, clear guidelines about how to reach you, and so on. Many people are reluctant to "bother" those they can't see. So when you are not working in the same location, you need to make certain things more clear, such as how you prefer to be contacted and your response times around various modes and types of communication (for example, if someone needs to reach you immediately, what is the best way to contact you).
In addition, any managers need to increase their level of "listening." Watch for behavioral changes and satisfaction issues among their employees, says Albiero. Employees who voluntarily telecommute may see the ability to work remotely as a key component of their job satisfaction. Some will be hesitant to bring up issues lest it mean rocking the boat or plant the idea that working remotely isn't a good idea for them or their workgroup.
"Managers need to be aware of employees who under- or over-communicate while working remotely, tension between remote-workers and in-office employees, changes in performance (for example, missing deadlines, even if by a little, when they didn't before), mood changes," and so on, he says. He points to the example of a star employee who begins a part-time telecommuting program, but who misses the social interaction of the office. A manager needs to convey that it's okay to be open about remote work issues: Problems don't necessarily risk participation.
Technology Is Your Friend
Beyond the more complex and subtle human side of your management skills to monitor, technology can also help with some basics of communication, says Albiero; this is why it's important to have shared technology. Tools that let you see someone's meeting schedule, for example, cut down on the frustration from not being called or getting a return message or e-mail.
Tech can also help in another area: Employee performance. Expectations around employee productivity must also be spelled out clearly, says Dziak, and project management dashboards can help you get an at-a-glance snapshot of an employees' progress on their projects. This makes it easier to give praise or concern where appropriate and focus on the most productive areas for a given conversation. A worker might have seven projects, each having 12 action items; the most important things need to be top of mind.
"People are getting more comfortable with and better at virtual work all the time," says Dziak." Being a proactive member of that group is crucial. "What it boils down to is if you want the organization to advance into the future in way that's effective and efficient, you can't hold onto the past with fingernails."
Or, as Jack Welch once said, "Don't manage—lead change before you have to."