Telework and organizational culture

What are the relationships between telework and organizational culture? Here is the Wikipedia definition of organizational culture:

the behavior of humans who are part of an organization and the meanings that the people attach to their actions. Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling. Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. 

One of the persistent questions I get about the impacts of telework is its effect on organizational culture. The fear is frequently expressed by the management of organizations considering adopting teleworking that somehow the teleworkers will become a sort of alien presence in their organizations. They fear that the teleworkers will be unable to adapt to the organizational culture and therefore will turn out to be a drag rather than an improvement to the organization’s operations and success.

Implicit in these expressions of fear is the concept that teleworkers must necessarily be out of even occasional communication with their traditional co-workers. This concept is simply false in any properly managed organization that employs teleworkers. Indeed, a primary objective of our training sessions for both teleworkers and telemanagers is that frequent and effective communication between teleworkers and their traditional colleagues is a must for successful teleworking. Furthermore, most teleworkers living locally do spend a few days or more per month working in  the “central” office with ample opportunity for face-to-face interaction and culture absorption.

So then the question invariably arises: can communication, particularly of the organization’s culture, be effective if it does not happen on a daily, face to face basis? Of course the invariable answer to that question is: it depends.

It is possible that an individual worker may be incapable of completing his or her tasks without direct, face-to-face supervision at all times. In this case it appears that two people must necessarily be involved in doing the work of one. One to supervise, the other to implement the work. Ordinarily this is not considered to be a productive relationship. Nor is it one conducive to successful telework.

If, on the other hand, the key to successful management is enabling employees to execute their tasks without constant oversight then telework can be a very valuable option. The question then becomes one of deciding what frequency of face-to-face interaction is optimal for a particular work situation. A related issue is the extent to which knowledge of the organization’s culture is important to completion of the work at hand. This leads to the second major objective of teleworker training: determining the specific objectives of the work to be performed, the tools and experience needed (including knowledge of crucial work relationships), the performance schedule, and the criteria for successful outcomes.

Here are a couple of examples. First, consider the case of a data specialist such as an actuary whose work consists almost entirely of performing statistical analyses of various forms of data. The input data are on a computer somewhere and the output analyses go to another computer, possibly somewhere else. For cases like these there is almost no interface with the organizational culture, nor is there any particular case of location dependence for the job holder. She can work essentially anywhere and still be a major contributor to the organization. She can telework essentially full-time.

At the other extreme consider the chief executive officer of a large organization. It is quite likely that her job requires a large amount of face-to-face interaction with others, both at the organizational headquarters and elsewhere around the world. In a sense this job is that of the high priest of organizational culture. Is it possible that telework can be part of this job? Of course. Some part of that needed “face to face interaction” can be accomplished satisfactorily with technology generally available today. So even at this extreme some portion of the work is telework capable.

Then there is the experience factor. I generally recommend that teleworking is not a good option for employees who are both new to the organization and whose work requires a good working knowledge of the organizational culture. But at some point in most jobs an employee will have learned the culture sufficiently well to be able to work relatively independently — to telework. This recommendation, of course, assumes that the work is otherwise somewhat location independent.

So the question then becomes not whether teleworking is suitable for a certain class of jobs but how often and under what circumstances it is suitable. Our surveys of American jobs lead me to believe that at least 40% of the workforce could easily be teleworking at least part of the time were it not for management reluctance to engage in the practice. Managers will often bring up supposed organizational culture issues as a red herring to disguise their reluctance to learn a new management style. The issue is then one of providing proper incentives to organizations to promote telework. My experience over the past 40 years is that it will take specific inclusion of telework as part of managers’ performance criteria to overcome their resistance.

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