A long-time client vented recently over a new mandate from a new (and distant) corporate parent: Office space, pricey in Silicon Valley, would be for engineers. Marketing folks would work remotely from home offices.
It’s a perfectly sensible financial decision for the company, but the underlying judgment that engineers are prioritized for face-to-face collaboration rankled the marketers. Ironically, over the last five years, I have written a series of white papers for this same company on why companies should embrace telecommuting. Trend #5: “Save on operations and real estate.”
In 20 years of working remotely, four lessons have emerged for both managing remote workers and working remotely. These apply not only for the smaller organizations of my experience but even for giant employers such as IBM with project teams scattered across the globe.
- Go beyond online communication. With the right online project management software, you can keep up-to-date on tasks and project status quite easily, but many workers crave a closer connection. Phone calls are fine, but face-to-face conversation helps too. In the mid-90s, I worked for a publication with writers scattered all across the U.S.. What made it workable were the twice-annual all-staff meetings at or near headquarters—and we remote workers spent a lot of time on the phone with colleagues. At my next job, I wanted to telecommute even though the job site was much closer, but I found that unless I attended in-person meetings at the office every week or two, I fell behind on office politics. Conference calls go part way, but web conferencing with video is even better for collaboration—and for keeping remote workers from feeling isolated. Managers: Don’t rely entirely on virtual connections.
- Don’t worry about the laundry. Managers of remote workers must give up the micro-managing concern that a remote employee is doing the laundry or picking up the kids after school. Perhaps so, but the right measure of productivity is getting the assigned work done. For remote workers, eschew the attraction of doing the laundry on company time. There’s an old telework anecdote about the telecommuter who got up in the morning, dressed in a coat and tie (it’s an old story), left the house to walk around the block, and returned home for a day at the office.
- You’re still managing people. “In my experience, the biggest hurdles are not usually around technology, but around leadership, change management and dealing with an organizational culture,” says Jason Morwick, co-author of the 2009 book Making Telework Work: Leading People and Leveraging Technology for High-Impact Results. “For example, what we call the ‘out of sight, out of mind syndrome’ — a perception of inequality or unfairness between office workers and teleworkers. Or, perhaps it’s trust issues.” Adds his co-author, Evan Offstein, “A lot of stuff that we take for granted, like the water cooler talk, leaders have to force this issue — through email, picking up the phone, message boards, chat rooms, that type of stuff… Leaders that make telework work would often draft team charters that would really specify the nature [of] why this teleworking team is being put together.”
- Passed over for promotion? Employee enthusiasm for telecommuting is dampened by a fear that working from home can hurt his or her career. A 2008 survey of 700 white-collar workers for Steelcase, the office furniture manufacturer, found that 64% respondents are concerned about a lack of contact with their employer, 71% think their employer prefers them to work in the office to prevent declines of productivity, 72% think employers prefer them in the office to control their work environment. Things have doubtless improved since 2008, but managers must convince their remote workers that teleworking doesn’t put them on the slow track.
Tim Clark, a teleworker since 1993, is an industry analyst with The FactPoint Group, a boutique Silicon Valley market research firm.