April 13, 2009 By Liza Lowery Massey
How do I manage what I can't see? This question comes up every time teleworking is discussed. As public-sector organizations embrace mobility beyond simple voice and data communications deployed in the field, more managers are facing this issue and others related to supporting a remote work force.
IT leaders are especially important in the virtual workplace since they face dual responsibilities. First, they must enable and support the organization's virtual employees. Second, they have to manage their own remote employees.
The benefits of allowing employees to telework -- i.e., work remotely, often with flexible hours -- are numerous and fairly well known. There's less environmental impact -- fewer people commute and use less office space -- as organizations "homeshore" employees for all or part of the workweek. Employees benefit financially because of commute-related savings. They also experience less stress and a higher level of job satisfaction on noncommute days.
Employers benefit, too, from cost-savings; lowered transportation costs for field employees; less office space; and decreased use of land lines, network connections and other office equipment. They also benefit from increased productivity in noncommuting employees.
When telework programs provide flexible hours and remote work locations, employees can take advantage of their personal peak time -- the time of day (or night) when they are most productive -- thereby increasing their productivity. Telework programs also help employers attract and retain talent.
When Arizona evaluated its telework program, which is used by 20 percent of its work force, the state found proof of all these benefits.
However, many challenges can sideline a telework program. Attitudes and other issues, like funding, security and policies, must be addressed. While traditional managers often rely on "face time" when evaluating employee performance, today's virtual supervisors understand that results count -- whether their employees are working onsite or offsite.
Successful telework programs identify the right people to do the right jobs under the right conditions. Accepting that some jobs and people aren't cut out for teleworking is important. Establishing a telework program also requires a team effort that not only includes IT representatives to address technology needs and support, but also HR and management to address policies, and information security specialists to address security and privacy issues.
The best telework programs have well-developed evaluation procedures, strong- yet-flexible policies and a training program for everyone. Though finding startup funding for a telework program can be daunting, the strong business case and cost-savings potential make it very attractive, especially in today's economic climate.
Telework is just one way government is beginning to move into the virtual world. There's a shift from place-based conferences, seminars and training toward networking and learning in the virtual world. Virtual conferences are gaining popularity with several scheduled for 2009.
However, whenever I bring up this topic, I'm quickly given the reasons place-based events are important and must continue despite a speaker's unavailability to attend due to fiscal or policy constraints. I tend to disagree with the suggestion that face-to-face networking is more beneficial than the virtual kind; it's a moot point when you can't attend an event in the first place.
The excuses to stay away are quickly disappearing. Economics, the green moment and practical reasons, like avoiding travel hassles, are all driving us into cyber-space. At the same time, tools and technologies to support online collaboration, learning, information sharing, and even socializing are becoming more stable and mainstream. From coast to coast, public-sector organizations are venturing into the virtual world to get work done, network with peers, and obtain training and education.
Given technology's vital role in making the shift to the virtual world successful, IT leaders should quickly adopt the right attitude, processes, policies and technologies necessary for success. If you're already there, congratulations and welcome to the virtual world. If you're not, we hope to see you soon!
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