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.

Who

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.

The problem beginning in 2020 was that almost everyone with any sort of information job was forced to work at home. This worked amazingly well for most, but not at all well for some people. So here is a list of our decades-long recommendations for who should not be eligible for teleworking, at least initially:

  • People who need daily access to information that is highly restricted, such as military and corporate secrets, or to equipment that is fixed in its location, such as laboratories or heavy production machinery.
  • New employees until they have had a chance to learn the ropes and the culture of the organization, except for those whose jobs are independent of the organization’s culture.
  • Young, single people who would benefit more from the social activities of the organization.
  • People who have difficulty working alone or without close supervision.
  • People whose household environments are not conducive to uninterrupted working. This includes homes with limited space for isolation during working hours; homes with small children or others who need constant attention; homes with noisy neighbors during working hours.

All but the first of these caveats are susceptible to change as the conditions improve over time. All but the first were probably ignored In 2020 as the pandemic grew; concern for health took precedence over those issues. But as we approach something closer to normality it is a good idea to review those restrictions.

What

Our usual training for prospective teleworkers involves splitting their jobs into a series of tasks. The tasks are then analyzed in terms of their location-dependence. That is, tasks that need the person to be in a specific place to be completed.

The next step is to see whether the location-dependent tasks can be grouped, preferably into full or partial days. Those tasks are the ones that may need to be performed in an office somewhere. The rest constitute the telework tasks.

Another aspect of the instant education forced by covid-19 was the discovery that many more supposedly location-dependent tasks were, and are, no such thing. Many tasks that once seemed to require face-to-face interaction appear not to today. The internet is now a suitable medium for those communications.

Still, the need for face-to-face interaction persists, given today’s technology, for both formal and informal communications. That’s the main reason why we recommend that new employees spend much of their work time in the office, rather than at home, until they get to know their way around the organization. Similarly, when crises arise (including covid) and teams need to quickly organize responses to them, face-to-face meetings are often necessary.

When

Ideally, telework and in-office tasks could be arranged so smoothly that the in-office activities could be lumped into a day or two per week or per month, leaving the rest for teleworking. In practice there always seems to be scheduling issues. Teleworkers want to keep their teleworking days around their weekends, leaving a mid-week hole in office attendance. That complicates office size and layout planning. Teleworking caregivers need to schedule their in-office days around doctor visits. Team members need to coordinate their face-to-face meetings as well. Facilities managers want to minimize deviations from “normal” space requirements.

But before you get upset by all these scheduling nits, please remember the good old days in the office when the manager was unavailable, in a meeting, or on a trip; your teammates were similarly somewhere else. How much time and frustration did you waste on those occasions?

Which brings me to meetings, the scourge of productivity if poorly managed. Meetings should be short (less than 45 minutes) and to the pre-established point. They are not for socializing or discussing sports or election results. One of the most common complaints by covid-induced teleworkers is death by Zoom; Zoom fatigue; Zoomalysis. This is not Zoom’s fault, it’s the fault of the meeting schedulers. Read Chapter 5 of Managing Telework for more detail.

Still, the need for informal face-to-face meetings, such as the socializing mentioned above, still exists. This is both an office design and a scheduling issue.

The other major when problem is when to stop working. It is very important to avoid burnout and other forms of stress. The fact that you are probably more effective because of teleworking during your “normal” work hours should be enough. You need not try to leap over tall buildings with a single bound.

All of this boils down to an average of slightly more than 3 days per week of teleworking from home. The rate for individual teleworkers can change up or down as the details of what is being worked on vary.

Where

As technology improves, the answer is that almost anywhere is a potential telework site, limited only by internet access. As a consequence there seems to be a trend: people moving from big cities to smaller ones or even rural places. New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among others, are reporting net outward migration possibly influenced by increased teleworking. One consequence may be the revitalization of smaller communities resulting from the influx of highly trained information workers.

On the other hand, teleworkers who move out of state may find themselves with a different problem: double taxation. For example, teleworkers who live in one state and work for an employer in another state may find that they own income tax in both states. This issue is now rising to Congressional attention.

But telework works locally as well. The growing number of teleworkers who stay where they are may spend more time exploring and participating in their local communities. They certainly spend less time sitting in traffic.

The statistics on who lives where as a result of more teleworking are yet to be seen. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

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