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.

Management style.

Perhaps style is the wrong word to use here. The fundamental criterion for successful teleworking is trust between all participants, beginning with the head of the organization and working all the way down to the lowliest teleworker. Since human history has many instances, some dreadful, of misplaced trust it is absolutely necessary that any telework program concentrates on developing and maintaining trust between its participants. This can be done by a number of measures including proper training, high-quality telecommunication systems and periodic or continuing evaluation.

The trust factor also depends on having just rewards for work performed. If advancement in the organization relies more on who you know than what you do I generally recommend that telework is not a good idea for such an organization.

Management structure.

Since teleworking itself often requires a certain flexibility of operations you might think that no highly hierarchical, rigidly structured organizations would be successful adopters of telework. Not necessarily so; where the work to be done is in itself well defined and highly structured, with clear, quantitative success criteria, teleworking might be quite successful. Examples are the many call centers and similar remote services organizations whose employees work from their homes or from neighborhood telework centers.

Also, organizations with flexible and highly lateral, as opposed to hierarchical, organization forms can also be highly successful using teleworking provided that their management practices and procedures —as well as their information infrastructure— are properly designed. But if the management practices are of an overly laissez-faire nature, look for trouble teleworking. I don’t know if this is the case but I suspect that this might have been the problem behind Yahoo’s ban of home-based telework.

Some key management characteristics for successful teleworking are:

  • well defined criteria for assessing the successful completion of each task;
  • mutual agreement between teleworker and tell manager as to these criteria;
  • specific schedules of the required work products, including identifiable milestones, as necessary;
  • well-defined responsibilities for management and workers in task completion.

If these characteristics are satisfied then it is likely that the resulting teleworking will be quite successful — at least for the immediate participants in teleworking. However, this brings up another important issue: acceptance of teleworking by the non-– teleworkers. Newly minted teleworkers often find themselves confronted by coworkers making comments like, “are you back from your vacation already?” or “how do I get a job like that?” Our most effective suggested response to that type of encounter is to point out some of the management characteristics noted above, possibly accompanied by showing a stack of work finished in the last few days, together with a challenge of, “how much have you accomplished while I was away?” The taunts by coworkers tend to rapidly diminish after such a confrontation.

Of course, prior to situations like the above arising it is also a very good idea to have some intensive training and follow-up sessions for the telemanagers, teleworkers, their colleagues and, possibly, the teleworkers’ families. Ordinarily, this is not the sort of training that can be done effectively outside the organization since much of the content of the necessary training sessions has to deal with the peculiarities of the organization itself. This is one of the reasons why we often tell organizations not to have new employees as teleworkers if part of the work experience depends on “knowing the ropes” of intraorganizational relationships (who does what and to whom). It is particularly important that this sort of training actually occur before teleworking formally begins.

This is just a brief review of some of the key issues in managing telework. For more details consult a copy of my book “Managing Telework“.

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