“Why do we need training to make telework work well?” is a question we get frequently. Here’s why: Teleworking is not the same as working in the office; it requires establishing communication patterns and modes that are likely to be different from those in the office.
For starters, that face-to-face interaction that is the mainstay of intra-office communication is either absent or flattened in telework situations. Almost the first question a prospective telemanager asks when faced with the prospect is: “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” That is the crux of the problem and the main motivation for training.
But it’s not just about the telemanagers. A common response from prospective teleworkers is: “Will my career plans go down the drain if I telework?” So the teleworkers, certainly, and maybe even their coworkers are likely to need training to make a smooth transition from in-office to remote working.
Part of the problem here is one of attitudes: the perceived job of a manager is to make sure her subordinates are working hard — and on the tasks that they’re assigned to do. That is, the manager as cop. In that case, the complementary job of the worker, then, is to resist the tyranny of the boss without actually getting fired. An adversary relationship. Not healthy.
For successful teleworking the core relationship between teleworker, telemanager and their coworkers has to be one of trust. The telemanager needs to trust that her teleworkers are performing productively. The teleworker needs to trust that his manager will reward him for work well done. Their coworkers need to trust that they can get in touch with the teleworkers when necessary.
And they all need to realize that work is best performed when irrelevant interruptions are kept to a minimum.
Just how does that happen? Training.
Training needs to focus on roles, responsibilities, communication patterns and their differences from business as usual. The roles portion deals with the who does what and to/with whom question. It should focus on establishing a fundamental shift in attitudes from the typical cop/perp relationship to one of teamwork.
Here the telemanager’s role morphs from cop to leader and mentor, establishing the goals and outcomes of the work to be done and the teleworker assumes the responsibility of getting the work done properly and on time. Ideally, this relationship is arrived at through a negotiation process in which each participant agrees on what is to be done, when the outcome is due and what the success criteria are. The emphasis is on outcomes, not processes.
Communication patterns and modalities need to change in such a way as to preserve information flows among the participants in teleworking so that all parties involved, including clients, maintain their connectivity. The telemanager needs to be able to get in touch with her teleworkers when necessary — although not by driving past his home several time a day to make sure he’s working — and the teleworker needs to be proactive about contacting the telemanager both to keep in touch and avoid the out-of-touch-thus-out-of-mind syndrome. [Actually, we have often found that teleworkers, because of their proactivity, know more about office politics than do their in-office colleagues.]
The details of the technology required to maintain effective communications will vary from organization to organization but we have found the process to work with technology as simple as paper, pencil and telephone. Where there’s a will . . . For many telecommuters regular trips to the office are appropriate, both to reinforce communications and to engage in the face-to-face interaction that may be useful in sensitive situations like new project kickoff meetings.
Then there are the teleworker-specific issues of communication among family members, friends and neighbors to work out so that the interruption-decreasing advantages of telework are truly realized without increasing the divorce rate.
Ideally, all of this training should be done before formal teleworking begins in order to minimize the likelihood of disruptions in workflow. Similarly, any innovations in technology needed to support or enhance teleworking should be thoroughly tested beforehand.
Clearly, teleworking differs from the traditional office environment and often takes some getting used-to and tweaking. But, done properly, the substantial benefits of teleworking for all concerned soon appear.
For more details, read Managing Telework.