Can Telework Work Well?

There is a new debate about the old topic of working from home. What’s trending: a revisit of the pros and cons of telework. Should we go back to the way we were, with more time spent in offices, or do something else? Let’s explore.

by / October 8, 2017
Credit: Shutterstock/goodluz

Most of us have seen this movie before. We know the ending, and we’ve made a decision about the best approach to telework.

Or have we?

Let’s start with a bit of background. There’s plenty of history here, and I’ve written quite a bit about my (evolving) views on the working from home topic as a government employee going back more than a decade in these articles from CSO magazine and SC magazine.

Back in May of this year, the Voice of America pointed out that a 2015 survey from Gallup found that 37 percent of Americans worked from home. In 1995, that number was only 9 percent.

That article (which is certainly worth reading) listed these pros and cons of teleworking:

Pros:

  • Reduced commuting time, more time for their families and a better balance between work and personal life.
  • More autonomy.
  • Part-time telework = the sweet spot. Half the time in the office and half the time outside the office seems to help avoid these “isolation and disconnect issues."
  • Employee perk.

Cons:

  • Teleworking may blur the line between our personal and professional lives. In other words, some teleworkers may have a hard time keeping their personal life separate from their professional life. This report claims that this “blurring” may have negative effects on the health and well-being of teleworkers.
  • Longer work hours.
  • Teleworkers who are out of the office too often say they feel isolated, or separate from their colleagues and the work environment.

Also, Governing magazine listed their pros and cons of current government telework programs back at the beginning of 2017. Here are some of the listed pros from the Maryland Department of Budget and Management:

“Most teleworkers report that they get more done and are more satisfied with their jobs as a result of teleworking.

The shortened commute decreases employee travel expenses and commuting stress ... while increasing the amount of time teleworkers have for professional and personal pursuits.

Teleworkers also enjoy a greater degree of work-related autonomy and responsibility.

Properly handled, teleworking can make it easier to manage dependent-care arrangements and create job opportunities for employees with disabilities.”

But Moving Forward …

The telework topic is resurfacing with new research and new data that suggests that more of us may be heading back into the office. Here are a few recent articles worth reading:

The Atlantic: When working from home doesn’t work — Excerpt: “In March of 2017, IBM wanted thousands of its workers back in actual, physical offices again.

The reaction was generally unsparing. The announcement was depicted, variously, as the desperate move of a company whose revenues had fallen 20 quarters in a row; a veiled method of shedding workers; or an attempt to imitate companies, like Apple and Google, that never embraced remote work in the first place. ...”

The article goes on to talk about Yahoo’s decision to do the same thing — bring the workers back to the office. And recent studies suggest that different goals are emerging regarding work.

“If it’s personal productivity — how many sales you close or customer complaints you handle — then the research, on balance, suggests that it’s probably better to let people work where and when they want. …

But other types of work hinge on what might be called “collaborative efficiency” — the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is — for the moment, anyway — still the office. …”

On the humorous side, I love this video that went viral last year with a dad who was doing an interview with the BBC at home when his children came in the room — followed by a frantic mom. (Side Note: Don’t we all fear this same thing could happen to us?)

Clearly there are practical considerations that we all must deal with when we work at home; nevertheless, public- and private-sector experiences seem to be all over the map regarding telework programs.

My Telework Viewpoint

I have seen telework programs that are very successful and others that become a major problem — harming the team culture. One essential component is an active management approach with supervisors who truly engage employees regardless of where they are sitting (or standing).

One tough issue is balancing the need to get real work done with offering a workplace “perk.” While in Michigan government, we tried to ensure that Fridays did not become “the telework day” when most people worked from home and minimal business was actually performed. And yet, in several offices, scheduling meetings or accomplishing specific goals on Fridays did become problematic. Over time, we needed to radically modify work schedules and policies and procedures due to employees who were not as productive when working from home.

And we all know that professional and personal situations change over time. In order to achieve communication goals, our management team had Michigan government cybersecurity staff rotate between working centrally, sitting with customers (in their business areas) and offering times to work at home. Over more than a decade, we recognized pendulum swings in what was most effective based upon different project requirements and situational differences between client needs. Bottom line: We constantly needed to tweak what we were doing regarding telework and in-office work.

In more recent private-sector experience, I work in a small office in Michigan with the majority of our Security Mentor, Inc., staff in California at our headquarters. At times, I can feel disconnected from teams, but I also am much more productive with fewer distractions, specific goals and metrics around deliverables.

To overcome challenges, we have video team meetings, regular calls and meetings at conferences, along with periodic in-person visits to headquarters. Bottom line, I like this telework approach, but we actively refine areas that we know can become team weaknesses.

Final Thoughts

I see this telework topic as a constantly evolving aspect of work life in the 21st century that will profoundly impact public- and private-sector cultures and organizational identity. Employee family needs certainly change throughout life. However, this topic also impacts issues like road congestion, carpooling, PC versus laptop purchases, available office space, innovation and many other topics such as cybersecurity protections at home with remote office connectivity.

It is clear that the pendulum is now swinging back toward a more traditional team approach, with in-person interactions around tables in physical offices — and not just via videoconferences from home. How far this goes remains to be seen, but I don’t think we are ever going back to under 10 percent working of the workforce participating in telework (at least part-time.)

My advice: Revisit this topic at least annually with your executive teams, managers, supervisors and front-line staff. Ask what’s working and what’s not working regarding telework. Do we need to update policies and procedures? Do we need two-factor authentication on our laptops and applications? What else needs tweaking or an overhaul?

Without transparency, telework programs will fail. This is not a “one and done” topic. Don’t be afraid to have open, honest discussions with your staff as part of performance reviews. The pendulum may need to swing one way or the other for a time, but the telework boat has left the dock for most roles — in my opinion.

So how well is your organization’s telework boat truly sailing? Is it time to trim the sails?