It’s the training, stupid!

With apologies to the 2000 Clinton campaign. Every few months or so some alleged pundit is quoted in the press as showing that telecommuting is bad because:

  • The productivity of telecommuters plummets;
  • The cost of telecommuting technology is too high;
  • Supervisors find it to be impossible to manage telecommuters;
  • All of the above and more.

A recent example of this phenomenon is an article by Reuters titled: “Telecommuting not great for workers left in the office“. This adds a new twist. After all the years we’ve spent worrying about the telecommuters’ performance we now find out from this article that the real hit is on those poor souls left behind. I feel that I must point out—again—that there is possibly a common thread to these claims.

It’s the training, stupid! In almost every case I know of where telecommuting failed or was associated with operational problems (other than technological ones) it turned out that the telecommuters and/or their direct supervisors were basically told to begin telecommuting or supervise telecommuters without receiving any training on the management issues of making it work for all concerned. Telecommuting is not the same as working in an office. In long-distance teleworking the differences are even more pronounced.

For example, in in-office situations non-verbal cues abound to indicate the more subtle aspects of interpersonal communication. Contemporary technology can substitute for many but not all of these communication needs for some people. That is why telecommuting is a part-time activity for the majority of contemporary telecommuters. It is also why the participants need to be trained to alter their communication patterns and methods in order to ensure that the quality of their communications is maintained or even enhanced in these distributed working situations.

For starters, supervisors often need to readjust their leadership and evaluation methods in order to maintain or improve overall effectiveness of their staffs. Telecommuters and their in-office colleagues need to establish new communication techniques and frequencies in order to maintain their workaday rapport.

Yet often an organization will focus its telecommuting efforts on making sure the technology works, and possibly training the users in the technology. Little effort is spent on training staff to work together when they’re apart. I don’t know if that’s the case for the organization reviewed in the Reuters article but I suspect that it is. In my three-plus decades of experience with properly trained telecommuters and telemanagers the problems described in the Reuters article either never existed or were resolved through training in the first few months of telecommuting operations.

Remember, it you are thinking of starting a telecommuting program or are having non-technological problems with an existing one, the first item of business is to check on the scope and adequacy of the participants’ training.

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