The Future is Flexible
Mention teleworking, and some managers immediately feel at sea. How can I supervise employees I can’t see? Will staffers be sending check-in emails while watching Netflix? Can professionalism be maintained in pajamas?
Yet behind these fears lay opportunities. Teleworking, if planned and managed successfully, can be thought of as an opportunity for an organization to build trust and productivity among employees. It can also be employed as a strategic talent management initiative that improves employee attraction, engagement, and retention while reducing costs for both the firm and the workers.
In the security field, there are some jobs that are not conducive to telework, such as physical security positions that require an on-site presence. But others are more location flexible, and some positions have elements of both–they require on-site availability on some days, but they also include duties that can be conducted at home, such as report writing, security officer scheduling, or customer service interactions that take place over email and phone. Security managers who dismiss telecommuting because not every position in their department is telework-friendly may be losing out on the broader organizational benefits of telework.
The aim of this article is twofold. It will offer some best practice guidance, mined from expert opinion and recent research, for managing teleworkers. It will also explore how a telework program can be used by a manager so that it plays a key role in the organization’s talent management strategies.
About 43 percent of U.S. workers work remotely in some capacity, even if that means telecommuting only once a week or less, according to the 2017 version of Gallup’s annual report, The State of the American Workplace. That percentage is up from 39 percent in 2012, which indicates a moderate but steady increase in teleworking.
As telecommuting becomes more popular, the average amount of time each teleworker spends at home or in another remote location increases. The percentage of U.S. teleworking employees who spend 80 percent or more of their time (equivalent to four days per week or more) working remotely has increased from 24 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2016. The number of employees who work remotely 40 to 80 percent of the time has also slightly increased, while the number of employees working remotely less than 20 percent of the time has decreased.
In addition, in more than half of the largest U.S. metro areas, telecommuting beats public transportation as the preferred commuting option, according to another report, 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce. Telecommuting has grown far faster than any other commuting mode, according to the study, which was issued by FlexJobs and Global Workplace.
One of the drivers of the growth of telework has been the U.S. federal government. In 2010, the U.S. Telework Enhancement Act became law, and it required the head of each executive agency to establish and implement a policy under which employees could be authorized to telework. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) serves as the lead agency for the government’s initiative; in its latest annual report to Congress, GSA said that federal teleworking continues to increase, with participation growing from 39 percent to 46 percent of eligible employees from 2013 to 2015.
Another telework driver is the increasing pressure from younger workers for more work options. “The millennial generation, which values flexible work, has risen to prominence in the workforce. They are influencing and encouraging remote work policies,” says Robert Arnold, a principal with management consultancy Frost & Sullivan’s Digital Transformation-Connected Work Industry practice. With developments like advanced cloud services, technology continues to evolve and offer more reliable support for remote work, Arnold adds.
Nonetheless, barriers remain. “Federal agencies have made considerable progress (in teleworking), but they also continue to report challenges such as management resistance, outdated cultural norms, and technology limitations,” the GSA said in its latest annual report to Congress.
Often, this management resistance simply boils down to lack of trust, says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “Some managers have this attitude–if they’re not looking at [workers] in the office, they’re at home on the sofa eating bonbons,” she says. Ironically, she adds, being in sight does not always mean being productive; workplace studies show that the majority of both cat videos and pornography are viewed in the office during working hours.
Concentrative v. Collaborative
One of the first tasks for those who plan to manage teleworkers is deciding who on staff may be eligible for telework. Overall, Gallup has found that a little over half of U.S. jobs, or about 55 percent, could allow for telecommuting, at least on a part-time basis.
Security jobs that require a daily on-site presence are generally not eligible for telework. And some employees, regardless of position requirements, simply do not want to telecommute. “Many people already know this about themselves—given the choice, they will opt to go into an office every day for the companionship, sense of purpose, or because they don’t trust themselves to be productive at home,” say consultants from Frost & Sullivan in their report, Best Practices for Managing Teleworkers: Changing Attitudes, Changing Ways.
However, those holding jobs with part-time on-site requirements may be eligible. Lister cites the example of a group of park rangers she worked with. Although they spent much time patrolling the park, they also had administrative responsibilities such as report writing, allowing many to successfully telecommute part time.
For guidance, some organizations use the model of concentrative versus collaborative work, Lister explains. Concentrative work, which is best conducted alone and without interruptions, can be done well remotely; collaborative work, such as meetings and group projects, is often best tackled in the firm’s office, with other team members present.
Once it is decided who might be working remotely, teleworking managers should keep in mind the following best practices, which come from various experts, including those quoted above, and from program guidance offered by GSA.
Co-create. A teleworking policy should be developed by the entire team. To set the tone and foster confidence before a new teleworking program begins, managers should engage in dialogue with their teams and address any questions about teleworking. Asking team members to discuss and achieve consensus on solutions to these questions can help the team become more invested in making a teleworking initiative a success.
While the specific answers will differ for each organization, managers should be prepared for questions such as:
- How will we connect with each other?
- How will teleworking affect my performance evaluations and the way my work is assessed?
- What are the procedures for coordinating team projects?
- Will teleworking affect my career path?
- How can we manage customer expectations while teleworking?
- How can we use technology to help us telework better?
- Can we create a sense of workplace and community when we are working away from the office?
Teamwork. If more than one employee is telecommuting, treat telework as a team activity rather than an individual one, whenever possible. Develop a team schedule, rather than an independent schedule, and a teleworking system that is consistent with the needs of the department and organization. This may mean that if an important team meeting needs to be held in person, employees normally scheduled to telework that day may have to come to the office on a scheduled telework day.
Virtual presence. Instant messaging systems can be used by team members to check in each morning, and change status when they will be away from the computer for more than a few minutes. Using a rotating system, one team member can also lead a virtual water cooler chat with a question or comment for team members to respond to once or twice a day. Transparent communication tools like shared calendars can also be useful.
In addition, advanced collaboration tools like video conferencing may also be considered. “They help to bridge the gap by building trust and intimacy that is conveyed by eye contact, body language, and other nonverbal communication cues,” Arnold says.
Customer service. If your team members interact with customers, make sure service-level support requirements in communicating with customers are clearly defined. All team members need to agree to meet the same service levels to ensure transparency to the customer. Commit with each other to an acceptable response period for email inquiries or phone calls.
IT support. A common reason for teleworking dissatisfaction is IT failure. Teleworkers are dependent on fast, reliable, consistent connections. Work with your IT group to ensure the technology is effective, efficient, operates consistently, and provides excellent customer service. IT department involvement and support is critical to your success.
Trust. In talking with teleworkers on the phone, managers should avoid comments like, “Hey, I hear a washing machine. Are you doing your laundry, or working?” Instead, managers should use telework as an opportunity to foster trust between employees and management. Established daily check-ins can be useful, but rigid micro-monitoring of daily activities hinders productivity and creates an environment of distrust.
Get together. The value of in-person community office time increases when working in a mobile environment. Collectively decide what types of events and activities will build a sense of cohesion and community. A regular social event might be included.
Office space options. In some organizations, teleworkers are encouraged to share their space while teleworking, and relinquish their in-office space when working in the office. This will require coordination with other employees, and sometimes the development of shared space protocols. Hoteling software, which can help administrators keep track of space booking and scheduling, can also assist in this process.
Manage by results. For managers used to passing offices where employees are working away, telework can be disconcerting. But apparent worker activity should not be confused with the results those activities produce. Establish a clear definition of objectives and performance indicators, and keep track of those indicators.
Monitor performance measures. One measure might be team sick days and absenteeism—have they decreased as your teleworking program progresses? Customer satisfaction might be another measure —has the needle moved in any direction since some team members started teleworking?
Keep evolving. Managers should think of a telework program as a continual work in progress. Teams are unlikely to get all arrangements right the first time. Evolving work groups and projects may also force changes in the original arrangements, regardless of how successful they may have been. Remain flexible, evaluate frequently, and adjust the arrangements as needed.
Telework as Strategic Initiative
The potential value of a well-managed teleworking program becomes even more clear when it is contextualized in the broader state of the current workplace. And as Gallup’s The State of the American Workplace finds, “the modern workforce knows what’s important to them and isn’t going to settle.” More than half of U.S. employees (51 percent) are searching for new jobs or watching for openings, and 47 percent say now is a good time to find a quality job.
But in this environment, teleworking options can boost an organization’s employee retention efforts. “Gallup consistently has found that flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job,” the report says.
GSA has found that teleworking can have a positive impact, in various ways, on the worker. In research comparing teleworkers with nonteleworkers, GSA found that teleworkers report more job satisfaction and higher engagement levels. They are also less likely to want to leave their current organization than nonteleworkers.
Private sector experts have found similar effects. “We do find that job satisfaction and loyalty continue to be positively impacted by remote work. Work-life balance is a big emphasis by employers in many sectors that wish to recruit and retain top talent and employees with increasingly scarce skill sets,” Arnold says.
Indeed, when it comes to employee engagement, the Gallup report showed that the most engaged workers were those who spent 60 to 80 percent of their week—or roughly three to four days—working from home. While four days out of the office may be a bit extreme for some organizations, Lister says that many employers are finding two to three days a week as the telecommuting “sweet spot,” with workers benefitting from both in-office camaraderie and out-of-office concentrative sessions. And Gallup has found that workers who say they have privacy when they need it are 1.7 times more likely to be engaged than workers who do not have that luxury.
Organizations are also finding other benefits to telework. Some organizations have combined an increase in telework with a transition to a smaller office space, thus reducing overhead costs.
And the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report found that employers, on average, save roughly $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. In addition, firms are often getting more out of their telecommuters. A half-time teleworker gains back an average of 11 days a year in commuting time, and will devote about 60 percent of that gained time toward work, Lister says.
Finally, as the benefits of teleworking become apparent to more employees and more organizations, they are also forcing change, Gallup finds. Organizations are being forced to reconsider how to best manage and optimize performance. Even the basic idea of when and where people work is evolving.
“The workplace is changing,” Gallup says, “at unprecedented speed.”