In recent blogs I have covered various aspects of the need for face-to-face (f2f) interaction in telework situations. Here I’ll go into more detail so you can decide for yourself what’s needed. What follows is a hierarchy of decision points.
Face-to-face interaction is usually most likely to be required where communication is sensitive or there is great uncertainty. Some examples:
- Marriage proposals
- High level diplomatic or political meetings
- Project organizational and/or review sessions
- Contract negotiations
- Performance appraisals
In short, f2f is desirable in situations where the involved parties need as many visual cues as practicable to make comfortable decisions. [Note that a previous blog pointed out that there is a difference between desirable and required.] As technology continues to improve it becomes easier to transmit subtle cues via telecommunications. As an example, the column Letter from China: Meet Dr. Freud in the 10 January 2011 issue of The New Yorker describes a series of Freudian analysis sessions in which the patients are in China and the analysts are in the United States. The communications medium? Skype. As is sometimes the case the interacting parties were more uncomfortable when meeting f2f for the first time than they were in Skype-mediated sessions.
Routine information exchange
At the other end of the spectrum is routine, no surprise, information transfer. These are situations that Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, called low entropy, as contrasted to the relatively high entropy situations in the list above. In routine situations the information sent by one side is pretty much what the receiving side expected. Examples of these include:
- Periodic reports
- Most staff meetings
- The daily grind in the office
- Performance of well-defined, well understood tasks
In short, the vast majority of daily business for most of us information workers.
Trust is the must
What makes telework work is a high level of trust between teleworker and telemanager. Most telework projects begin with a set of people who already have developed trustful relationships with each other. New teleworkers (and telemanagers) are added as they demonstrate that they are trustworthy. In the early days of teleworking most of the teleworkers were in routine or professional jobs where their work was easily checked for quality and quantity or where their jobs were traditionally considered to be of a high level of responsibility.
Still, even in the large group of low entropy work situations, the maxim remains: trust but verify. With today’s spectrum of information technologies that task becomes easier by the day.
Whither thou goest
So now your decision regarding your personal teleworkability (or telecommutability) lies in your (and your supervisor’s) estimate of the range and duration of entropies in your work. If you’re very often in crisis situations, where you absolutely need to be there on the spot you’re probably not a good candidate for teleworking. If, on the other hand, your work is mostly of a self-sufficient nature, what are you waiting for? The price of gasoline is not likely to fall often in the future.