Thursday, 11 April 2013

Work from Home: Ways to Ensure its Effectiveness

Marissa Mayer found herself at the center of a controversy when she issued a mandate that all Yahoo employees must work in one of the company's offices. Many people saw this as an indictment against the telework movement, which has become a mainstream option in recent years thanks to the explosive growth of mobile and cloud technologies that allows many professionals to work anyplace they have Internet access. As Yahoo played damage control about the decision, describing the decision as necessary for Yahoo's situation and not a value statement about remote workers, a picture began to emerge of wide scale corporate dysfunction.

As it turned out, Mayer made the decision because many Yahoo employees that were allowed to work from home simply weren't working -- and they weren't bothering to hide it. Mayer discovered the breadth of the situation by looking at VPN logs and discovering that remote workers weren't even connecting to Yahoo's corporate network. While the rest of world debated Mayer's decision, a number of Yahoo employees publicly praised the decision because they knew their colleagues were shirking their duties.

Mayer's decision may not have been a statement about the value or challenges of managing a remote workforce, but it definitely shows what can go wrong with a telework program and the drastic actions that it can take correct the situation. That brings up a big question for managers (and employees): What steps can you take to prevent your team, department, or company from developing a Yahoo-like dysfunction while embracing the flexibility and other advantages telework offers?

First and foremost -- telework isn't right for everyone. Understand that not everyone is well suited to working remotely and that some jobs don't lend themselves to a remote worker model. Depending on your business or department, the corporate culture, or even the type of work that you do may not be ideal for teleworking. An honest assessment of your organization's mission, the various teams and departments, individual employees and job roles is the first step in planning a successful telework experience. While management can do a good job in these assessments, employees themselves can offer invaluable insights in assessing themselves and their duties and should be part of the process.

Deny telework requests for business reasons only. If you need to deny telework (initially or after having previously approved it), you should be able articulate the business reasons for that decision. Personal preferences should not be a reason to deny telework options for individuals or teams.

Have clear goals. There are plenty of documented advantages to telework -- increased productivity, employee satisfaction, less downtime because of commuting, potentially easier access to clients or services, a lower carbon footprint, cost savings on office space, and a better overall attitude because people aren't fighting through traffic to get to the office. However, you should have a defined sense of what you want to a telework program to accomplish or how it will benefit your company. That knowledge helps you tailor the program to your needs, and to develop criteria and metrics for determining if the program is successful or how it may need to be tweaked.

Start with a pilot program. Shifting to a telework model is a major undertaking. As with many workplace and technology changes, you should test the waters before planning for a company-wide or departmental initiative. The pilot will let you test whether or not your presumed needs and support systems -- such as hardware, remote access technologies, and employee training -- are in fact effective enough.

Develop consistent policies for working remotely. These policies should include input from HR, legal, and even employee unions or bargaining units, all of which are major stakeholders shaping how and when employees work outside of the office. Be sure that the policies spell out employee and manager responsibilities, general expectations, and cost-sharing options that you may employ to compensate employees for establishing and managing a home office (wired or mobile Internet access, hardware, security and anti-malware software, mobile devices and service, or even space rental outside the home). Any employee requesting to work remotely should fully understand and agree to the terms and to any disciplinary actions if they fail to meet those requirements.

Provide training. Education and training is a big factor in successful telework programs. That education can be technical (how to use various devices and secure remote access technologies), it can focus on collaboration models for distributed workforces, it can cover workspace safety issues like ergonomic models to reduce repetitive stress injury, and it can tackle HR issues like feedback and conflict resolution. Any question that a manager or employee might have about the program or its policies should be communicated before the program ramps up.

Include in-office staff in policies and training. Setting guidelines about how in-office staff should interact with remote team members can help ensure smooth interactions and help resolve any ruffled feathers that in-office workers may feel about not being able to work remotely. Make sure division of labor is equitable regardless of who's in the office and who's working remotely to ensure a sense of fairness on both parties.

Create a criteria list of what remote employees need.  This could mean smartphones, personally owned computers, specific apps, VPN functionality, Internet access, a dedicated landline or VOIP line for phone and/or fax, and even hours that a remote worker is expected to be working or available. Then make sure that workers have these things already, or that the company can provide them.

Encourage employees working from home to set work/life boundaries. Establishing a real home office (ideally with a door that can be closed for quiet and so work is out of sight at the end of the day) is one of the most important boundaries to set. Also ensure workers understand that while telework does add flexibility and time with family, it shouldn't be a wholesale replacement for child care or elder care.

Redesign performance review processes. A big challenge in remote work programs is the lack of the day-to-day interaction and feedback that's common in an office. Even measuring engagement on a daily basis can be difficult. Often organizations need to create a new range of performance metrics to assess remote employees and may even need to create a different schedule for performance reviews to ensure issues don't fall through the cracks.

Face time is critical. It's important to keep human contact with remote workers. While planning a team meeting in which everyone attends physically may not be feasible, you should make efforts to get team members together when possible, be that at conferences, team or company retreats, or by invitation to social events. Even if those opportunities are infrequent, they help cement relationships and team dynamics in much the same way that seeing longtime friends and family members helps to strengthen bonds that are maintained mostly by email or Facebook.

Actively checking in is mandatory. Even if you can only check in by phone or video chat, ensuring that you do so on a regular basis is extremely important to keep team members motivated and feeling like they're part of a team. Many experts suggest checking in with each remote team member at least once a week. You can even promote deeper engagement by using social tools across a team, which can be something as simple as a web forum or wiki, mainstream media tools -- a Twitter list, Facebook group, Google+ circle -- or a full featured enterprise social platform.

Encourage long distance employees to make use of flexible offices or coworking spaces. Working solely from home can be isolating in a personal as well as a professional sense. Using flexible rented office space or coworking spaces can combat that isolation, offer a professional setting for meeting clients, and even expand networking opportunities. Likewise, you should try to keep some space in the office for remote employees to use on occasion -- after all telework isn't an all or nothing proposition.

Consider hiring or assigning a telework coordinator. Telework programs represent a unique mix of stakeholders -- IT, HR, corporate policy makers, finance, building or facilities management, managers, and the remote workers themselves. Assigning someone who can be an intermediary for all those stakeholders as well as a go-to person for resolving problems can keep a telework program running smoothly.

Provide forums for managers of teleworkers. Often times problems and opportunities associated with a remote workforce will impact multiple teams. Providing managers a forum -- be it an actual web forum, an email list, social platform, or regular meetings -- to discuss challenges and ideas and to learn from another can help avoid problems and capitalize on opportunities.

Review effectiveness of the telework program and related policies on a regular basis. A telework initiative is far from static. Changes in staff, corporate culture or policy, and technology will impact that the program in large and small ways. Reviewing its effectiveness, limitations, costs, and opportunities at least once a year can ensure ongoing success.

Address problems as soon as they're identified. It's virtually impossible for any business initiative to function without glitches or problems and a telework program is no exception. While all these tips can help you avoid problems, some issues may be unavoidable or beyond the scope of anything you could anticipate. Dealing with trouble immediately is always better than procrastinating and letting things fester, but it can be absolutely essential with a remote workforce. Being outside of the office and often working by themselves, remote workers don't see evidence of a problem being discussed or addressed in the way that employees in an office do. Not hearing the scuttlebutt or being able to vent frustrations with coworkers means that small issues can seem bigger than they are, and major issues can be easily overlooked -- both of which are recipes for disaster.

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