There are two words that characterize successful telework programs: trust and imagination. I used to use a PowerPoint slide with just those two words in my briefings to prospective teleworkers and telemanagers. The reason these two words are key is quite simple: when workers can’t see each other they must trust that their co-workers are on the same page as they are and they must use a little imagination to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact. Building trust is the core objective of teleworker-telemanager training.
Teleworking is not the same as collocational working, mostly because of that lack of face-to-face interaction. The presumed need for face-to-face is what prompted Tom Peters’ “management by walking around” philosophy; if you make a practice of walking around — among your co-workers — you will likely quickly notice what might be going wrong as well as what’s going right. You can then capitalize on the improvements and correct any errors faster than your slugabed competitors.
But what if it is impossible to manage by walking around? What if your co-workers are somewhere else entirely? If you are a manager responsible for the efforts of others or a teleworker uncertain about your immediate job requirements — or ultimate rewards — you might feel a little increase in tension. How long can you stand it before you need to see them in person? This, of course, is the train of thought that is behind most managers’ reluctance to engage in or support telework. The inevitable: “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?”
Hence the importance of trust.
Where trust is founded solely upon managers acting as cops and team members keeping an eye on each other, something needs to change. JALA’s approach has been to alter the interrelationships among the work group members. Chapter 5 of Managing Telework has the gory details but the gist of the approach is to transform managers into leaders and team member into true collaborators in a system in which each member negotiates, knows and accepts his/her own roles and responsibilities. This way, each work group member feels pretty much responsible for his/her own fate and learns to trust the other group members.
Sounds simple? If so, then why do I keep hearing of companies having bad telework-hair days because of their ignorance of, or disdain for, this simple principle? More often than not over the past couple of decades such organizations have announced that telework doesn’t work, have cashed in their telework chips, forced everyone back into the office — and suffered severe competitive disadvantages to their cannier teleworking competitors. Sadly, telework — not poor management practices — gets the blame.
On the other hand, organizations following competent telework management principles find that their employees do trust each other, are more flexible in responding to changes in the business environment, and are more effective in their work.
In these days of global-scale “nobody trusts anybody”, what could be better?