More Thoughts on Telework

I used to manage a professional staff of around forty-five, most of whom telecommuted twice a week. Telecommuting is not appropriate for all jobs, but in the jobs where it is possible workers can be more productive away from the office. We have to get used to it, anyway, since President Obama signed into law the Telework Enhancement Act.

I wrote a lot about this on other occasions, in response to an an NPR story on Results Only Work Environments and when we was all kept at home by snow storms.

The bottom line for me is that telecommuting is a good thing that can improve morale and productivity. Take a look at the linked article and the links in it for the pluses But there are caveats & I believe that my experience managing telecommuting as well as telecommuting myself, sometimes between continents, give me some insights, which I can share.

One non-obvious thing that is necessary for telecommuting is a degree of arbitrariness.Some people can handle telecommuting; others cannot. The manager of telecommuters has an additional responsibility to use judgment to make reasonable distinctions among employees. This is very difficult to do. You will often be accused of being arbitrary or unfair.

Those that abuse telecommuting usually can come up with good excuses for why they couldn’t complete their work on time. A good manager cannot let them get away with it. It is unfair to the good workers. What I have seen too often, unfortunately, is an abdication of responsibility in the name of “fairness”. Managers either ignore the transgressions or they punish the innocent and guilty alike with onerous rules and restrictions.

Managers also have to get used to looking for results instead of “face time”. Most managers claim they are interested in results, but they reward presence. Beyond that, although few will admit it, many managers like to have people around that they can boss. We also have to admit that a properly designed telecommuting program may mean that we need fewer middle managers. The organization afforded by technologies can to some extent replace the organization provided by middle management.

Still thinking of this from the manager’s point of view, we have to learn not to ask too much from our good teleworkers. Flexibility is one of the advantages to telecommuting, but some managers think that flexibility means stretching work hours to … forever.

I learned this myself by my own mistakes. I work odd hours and my work and my leisure overlap, i.e. I actually enjoy many of the parts of my work, so I do them in my free time too. I used to check my email when I woke up in the morning and before going to bed at night. When I saw something that needed to be done, I would often make my comments and send it off to whoever was going to have to handle it the next day. What I quickly learned is that my best colleagues also checked their work early and late. They also sometimes took my comments as commands to get the work done right away.

People follow the lead of the boss. The boss often enjoys his work and doesn’t mind – even likes – long hours. More importantly, the boss is in control. He/she doesn’t feel the same stress that the subordinate does. When I sent along a comment, all I meant was that it would be a good idea to work on this tomorrow morning, or maybe just think about. When my colleagues got my midnight message, they thought it was an urgent command. It is a smaller version of the Henry II “command” about Thomas a-Becket.

I finally had to make a rule that nobody was supposed to touch their office work between 8pm and 7am. I know that people looked at the work. I did. But I didn’t send or respond to any emails.

This brings me to my last caveat. Telecommuting is part of the whole technology-social media world. It brings with it the same danger of magnifying the trivial, flattening priorities and destroying the whole idea of actual deliberation. The instant nature of communications creates the illusion of knowledge. It is tempting to act before you have all the information you need for smart decisions. We are tempted to see trends where none exist.

We used to have a saying that you should “sleep on” any hard decision. This gives you time to put things in perspective and it remains a good idea in many cases, but it is much harder to do and much harder to separate the important from the merely urgent when you are awash with information.

Teleworking is more than just letting people work at home or cutting the commuting time. It is not just something that can be tacked onto a workweek, like pinning a tail on the donkey. It requires a system wide adjustment. Some people will thrive in a telework environment; others not so much. It is a bigger change than most people think and a bigger opportunity.