Tag Archives: managing teleworking

Telework: Showing A Damped Oscillation

As a consequence of Covid, telework acceptance is undergoing a damped oscillation on a global scale. Of course it has been doing this at organization scales since the mid 1970s but now it is visible everywhere. Here is the process.

Damped oscillations

If you are unfamiliar with the term, oscillation refers to a process in which something starts to vary by changing radically in, say, a positive direction, going to a maximum value, then changing course to the opposite direction, reaching a minimum value, then repeating the cycles forever.

A damped oscillation is a process in which each additional cycle past the first one is progressively smaller in size, slowly fading away until it reaches equilibrium. Typical examples are echoes, the sound from a struck tuning fork or piano string, and the like. But more complex processes, like organizational behavior, can also show damped oscillatory behavior. Newly introduced teleworking is one such process. Here’s how it typically works.

The Covid example

Imagine an organization going along, minding its own business, when suddenly a disaster strikes. A disaster like Covid. Immediately everyone understands that, because of the infection dangers, it is very important to isolate the employees from one another wherever possible. If the organization is primarily information focused and technologically prepared, all employees are sent home to work. Thus begins the first transition.

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Telework 2021: Who, what, when and where

Now that many of us have had at least a year of experience with teleworking (or many of its synonyms) it is time to take stock of the possibilities for the near future. Who will the future teleworkers be, what will they be doing, when will they be teleworking and where will they be doing it? The successes, and tribulations, of the past year give us some clues to each of those possibilities.


Fundamentally, teleworkers are people whose jobs are at least partially location-independent. Currently that’s roughly half to three-fifths of the workforce in developed countries; information workers. Some information workers still are restricted to live near and work in a primary location but technology is constantly eroding that requirement. Those restrictions are imposed by such things as access to fixed or very expensive equipment or facilities, security considerations or group interaction requirements. Currently that leaves more than 40% of the workforce as potential active teleworkers. As technology improves, the proportion of telework-eligible workers grows.

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Time to move ahead . . . to the 19th century

For those of you who weren’t around at the time I submit that the early 19th century had much to admire. Particularly the fact that most people lived and worked at home then. Leaving aside such matters as plagues, wars, racism, unequal rights and other forms of injustice we have an opportunity, 200 years later, to emulate those days. Covid-19 has forced many of us to try it, willing or not. Somewhere between 25% and 45%, of employed people (depending on the data source) in advanced countries are currently full-time, at-home teleworkers.

Yet it still seems that many people are having problems getting adjusted to their new situation. In a previous blog I discussed the physical aspects of setting up the home office. Now it’s time to think about the psychological rearrangements.

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In search of that elusive serendipity

Almost from the beginning of our research on telework we had the alleged problem of loss of serendipity — that chance encounter by people in the hallway or lunchroom where the conditions were just right to lead to major positive changes in . . . whatever. Almost from the beginning we have been in search of that elusive serendipity during telework. That Aha! moment that transforms where you collectively are going. In my experience those prized chance hallway encounters among co-workers rarely are serendipitous because one factor is usually missing.

I had a truly serendipitous experience in Santa Barbara, California, in the Spring of 1971 when I asked Sam Clawson, a regional planner in that city, about how the aerospace industry could help him. His answer: “Why can’t you techies do something about traffic?” Bingo! My Aha! light went on and soon changed the direction of my career. Then, two years later, what I started to call The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff became Telecommuting. Now the question is: could that happen today or are the chances diminished when most information workers are teleworking, spread across the countryside?

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Teleworkable organizations

One of the most fundamental—and most often ignored—considerations in the development of telework programs is the teleworkability of the organization itself. How capable is an organization of making the behavioral changes that might be made necessary by teleworking? Just as not all workers will make good teleworkers, not all organizations can easily adopt teleworking. Here are some criteria for assessing the likelihood that a particular organization will successfully embrace teleworking.

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