By Mark Vickers
The trend toward telework is growing steadily. As more employers offer the option, an increasing number of managers find both their skill sets and mindsets challenged by new approaches to getting work done.
In the U.S., the number of people whose employer permits them to work from outside the traditional workplace at least one day per month jumped from 7.6 million in 2004 to 12.4 million in 2006, according to recent research commissioned by the not-for-profit professional association WorldatWork (Johnson, 2007). When self-employed people who work as contractors are added to the mix, the total number of teleworkers in the U.S. rises to 28.7 million (WorldatWork 2007).
A Gallup poll of 1,007 U.S. workers found that nearly a third of them had telecommuted at one time or another as of 2006, up from 9% who reported having done so in a 1995 poll (Jones, 2006). Meanwhile, the 2007 Benefits report from the Society for Human Resource Management indicates that 21% of companies allow telecommuting on a full-time basis, up from 17% in 2003 (Fegley et al. 2007)
Of course, there are a number of good reasons for the uptick in the telework trend. For one thing, the technology is getting better. The increase in broadband Internet connections, wireless access, and cell phones all make telework more feasible for individuals. And virtual workspace technologies such as electronic whiteboards, collaborative document editing and online discussion threads are making team collaboration among teleworkers increasingly productive.
Government policies also influence the trend. In 2000, for example, the U.S. Congress ordered federal agencies to allow employees to work from home “to the maximum extent possible without diminished employee performance” (Bridgeford 2007).
Workers’ desire for flexibility is another driver. Telework gives employees greater freedom in terms of where and, sometimes, when they work, a feature of work that at least one study shows is highly valued among top-performing employees (Giancola 2005).
Cost savings also play a major role in the adoption of telework, according to a recent CoreNet Global study of senior executives. “Today’s forward-thinking, results-driven companies are sending workers home, purging underutilized real estate, saving money, and reinventing the whole concept of ‘going to work,’” noted Eric Bowles, director of global research at CoreNet, in T&D magazine (Rossi 2007). Over half of the CoreNet survey respondents reported that 10% or more of their knowledge workers work outside traditional offices.
But the factors that could be most likely to drive the telework trend over the long haul are managerial skill sets and mindsets. A Futurestep poll of 1,320 global executives in 71 countries found that 61% of senior managers think telecommuters are not as likely as conventional office workers to be promoted, despite the fact that over three-quarters also think teleworkers are equally productive as (42%) or more productive than (36%) their office-dwelling colleagues (Bridgeford 2007). So, it’s clear that, for workers at least, office “face time” can have benefits beyond work productivity. Indeed, a survey of federal managers found that the most widely cited communication challenges related to telework are a “lack of face-to-face contact” (32%) and “inability to sit around table and collaborate face-to-face” (22%) (Telework 2007).
This can be a serious problem for even the most highly qualified and productive telecommuters. Managers might consciously recognize that teleworkers are productive, but people are often inclined toward face-to-face interactions. So adapting to the world of telework requires both managerial and organizational adjustments.
The most important of these adjustments involves measuring performance by results rather than by worker visibility. This is, in fact, the linchpin of most flexible work arrangements. Managers must clearly communicate expectations to teleworkers, ensuring they understand the scope of their jobs, performance expectations, and how performance will be measured. And managers should have processes in place to gauge the effectiveness of flexible work options.
Screening potential teleworkers is also a critical adjustment. Business software firm CorasWorks has a workforce that is largely virtual, and it carefully screens employee candidates to assess their potential for working independently. In addition, it provides intensive training designed to give employees the information they need to succeed in their jobs. The combination of flexible work and rigorous interviewing has helped keep the company’s turnover rate well below the industry standard (“Truly,” 2006).
Of course, managers need the right skill sets to make such arrangements work. They should receive training specifically geared toward telecommuter issues, such as problems associated with isolation, diminished feedback, and home-based worker safety issues. Managers should also be taught how to discuss and aid the career advancement of telecommuters, who may be overlooked due to their lack of face time.
Some experts recommend developing a strong series of flexible-work policies, practices and guidelines (which can include the telework option) that can be shared across the organization. This prevents the proliferation of case-by-case arrangements, the details of which are often kept confidential, hindering organization-wide sharing of best practices (Noble, 2007). But, of course, establishing good policies boils down to skilled management and a telework-friendly mindset. If more organizations develop those, then the telework trend is likely to continue its upward trajectory for some years to come.
For more information relating to telecommuting, please visit www.i4cp.com
Bridgeford, Lydell C. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” Employee Benefit News, April 1, 2007, pp. 14–16.
“Data Bank.” Workforce Management, April 23, 2007, p. 16.
Fegley, Shawn et al. 2007 Benefits Survey Report. Society for Human Resource Management, 2007.
Giancola, Frank. “Flexible Schedules, a Win-Win Reward.” Workspan, July 2005, pp. 52–54.
Johnson, Ryan M. “U.S. Telework Trends: Working from Anywhere.” Workspan, May 2007, pp. 73–76.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “One in Three U.S. Workers Have ‘Telecommuted’ to Work.” Gallup News Service. Press release [http://poll.gallup.com]. August 16, 2006.
Noble, Karen. “Building a Culture of Flexibility.” Workspan, May 2007, pp. 66–70.
Rossi, Josephine. “Telework Increases.” T D, April 2007, p. 14.
Telework Exchange. Face-to-Face with Management Reality. January 22, 2007.
“Truly Virtual Workplace Reduces Costs, Turnover.” Best Practices in HR, April 1, 2006, p. 7.
WorldatWork. “2007 Survey Brief: Telework Trendlines for 2006.” 2007
About the Author(s)
Mark Vickers is an associate with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.