There has been much excitement over the past week as a result of Yahoo’s announcement to bring its teams back into the face-to-face work environment, and to severely curtail the amount of teleworking. Some commentators have suggested that elements of the Yahoo culture had seen teleworking go too far in parts of the business causing issues in productivity and performance.
But the publicity has also placed the telework discussion in the headlights on a broader front. In doing so, it has provided a real focus on people issues and workforce effectiveness.
Teleworking is a fluid topic in how it is defined and measured. Some teleworking is no more than catching up on unfinished work, but in the home environment. With the right tools, almost anybody can work from home to finish a presentation or report. Of course, this can also extend to catch-up work in a hotel room, a coffee shop or an airport.
Other forms of telework are more formalized. For example, a person may work from home or a remote location for say a set number of days each week. This could be due to a whole range of lifestyle reasons, such as extensive commuting times.
To expand and promote the concept, teleworking events and forums have become more common in recent years. The US and Europe have conducted “telework weeks” over the past several years. Australia held its first telework week in November last year with significant input and presence from national business and political leaders. These events serve to highlight some of the challenges of teleworking, but also they celebrate the many successes. At the telework week in Australia for example, US Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich painted a compelling picture of success from teleworking in parts of the US Government, both in terms of productivity and lifestyle benefits.
Successful teleworking does need to be managed carefully so that benefits are realized, but also that the organization culture is not unduly compromised. Organizations that use teleworking successfully exhibit three guiding principles:
1. Focus more on the outcomes, not on the process
If outcomes can be delivered more effectively and efficiently by teleworking then it should be encouraged. It helps the organization, and also is a win for employees as they have more flexibility and lifestyle benefits. At a conference not so long ago, I met a man who commuted two hours each morning and evening. He was supposedly “required” to be in the office. Yet his role in fielding enquiries on customer issues could have easily been done from home, at least for a couple of days each week. His organization was too focussed on the process of work rather that delivering the outcome more efficiently. To say nothing of the horrendous commute each day for the employee.
2. Maintain a balance between teleworking and face-to-face activity
Not so long ago, I met a person from a large global organization, and he told me he has not been into his local office for about 6 months. Indeed, he almost saw this as a badge of honour. Upon further enquiry, it turned out that he was not alone. This situation is clearly an extreme, but imagine the negative impact on organization culture, productivity and teamwork just to name a few. There is no shortage of technology to help us work remotely, but it needs to be balanced with real interaction with colleagues and the workplace. Disappearing off the radar for six months is an amazing copout from both the employee and the organization. There are no hard and fast rules, but in my view some face-to-face contact with colleagues needs to occur at least twice a week.
3. Know when to get a meeting happening
One of the traps of teleworking is that the so-called flexible arrangements can become fixed. That is, someone who normally works say 2 days a week at home will of course build this into the routine. There is nothing wrong with that, and indeed there may be some family or other reasons for that arrangement. However, it is important that all participants in teleworking have some flexibility to gather together reasonably quickly for that urgent proposal or report completion. There is nothing worse that having four people from a six person team meeting in a room in the office, but with the other two trying to participate via phone just because it is their day to work remotely.
Whilst Yahoo may have specific issues to consider in their environment and have chosen a course of action, for most organizations teleworking presents a strong win-win opportunity for productivity and lifestyle improvements.