It’s the Management, stupid!

Every now and then an article appears in a media outlet decrying teleworking because of the alleged propensity of teleworkers to goof off instead of doing actual work. For example, the Washington Post recently published an article about the claimed gallivanting of Patent and Trademark Office teleworkers. The article was based on a report by the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General that several PTO employees were collecting for teleworking time when they weren’t really working. Quickly that intrepid California Congressman Darryl Issa demanded an investigation of the supposed malfeasance.

Next came an article in Nextgov, titled Patent Office Telework Scandal Not Really About Telework, claiming that it was all a case of mistaken attribution. Specifically:

Revelations of unprofessional behavior within the Patent and Trademark Office’s award-winning work-from-home program have been described as “telework abuses” by investigators and lawmakers — despite a lack of details specifically linking the problems to telework, mobile work advocates say.

They were abuses, sure. Fundamentally telework-related? Not so much, they say.

Surprise, surprise! It’s the Management, stupid, not the telework that’s the problem!

Telework success demands quality management. Ever since we started measuring telework success more than forty years ago we consistently found that the management, not the technology, issues were the greatest hurdle to success. Just to add to the controversy an article in the same issue of Nextgov as the one cited above claims that women are discriminated against as prospective teleworkers.

So here are the rules:

  1. Trust. The central rule of any management situation is that trust must be established and maintained between all parties of work teams: managers, employees and colleagues. Most barriers to successful telework arise because of a lack of trust on one or both sides. That is clearly the case behind the PTO reports.
  2. Scheduling. Understand that work comprises tasks. Some tasks require either face-to-face interaction with others, or access to immovable resources like safes, operating rooms or holes-to-be-dug. Those tasks are what I call location-dependent. Most, but not all, information/knowledge work tasks are location-independent. These tasks can be done anywhere and, often, any time. Telework comprises location-independent tasks. The management issue is to sort the times of occurrence of those location-independent tasks into contiguous clumps adding up to days. I’m not in favor of part-day telework since usually it has no energy or environmental benefit. The number of days per month that teleworkers need to show up at the office depends on how frequently location-dependent tasks need to be performed.
  3. Consensus and responsibilities. The next crucial step is to have an agreement (possibly written and signed) between supervisor and teleworker about the nature of the  desired output of the tasks performed; the inputs, training and tools needed by the teleworker; the necessary levels and schedules of communications needed among teleworker, supervisor, co-workers and clients; and the performance schedule. Central to this is a clear understanding of who is responsible for what. Properly done, this establishes the basis of trust between manager and teleworker.
  4. Preflight check. Make sure all the requirements are met before teleworking begins.
  5. Go. Begin teleworking. Trust but verify periodically.

For most telework problems one or more of these steps were not taken or were only partially fulfilled. For example, one of the comments to the second Nextgov article was by a supervisor who stated:

If you’re taking care of a child or training for an athletic event, you’re not working. Color me old school if you must, but how productive are you if you’re dealing with a child or cutting the day short to ride your bike? That’s what leave is for. Work is work, personal time is personal time.

Clearly, this supervisor didn’t even think about arranging a prospective teleworker’s schedule so that the work would still be performed on time and with the desired quality. Work performed. Personal time allocated. All sides satisfied.

It’s the management, stupid.

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