Telework Tips: 4 Strategies for Leading Remote Workers

By Ericka Chickowski  |  Posted 2008-02-07

Over the past decade IT departments around the globe have enabled employees to decouple office work from the office. According to analyst firm Gartner, the number of worldwide teleworkers has steadily increased at an average rate of 10 percent over the last four years.

Teleworking can transform an organization through improved productivity, high retention rates and even reduced real estate overhead. The business case can often be strong, even strictly from a measurable bottom-line perspective. The Telework Coalition found in its 2006 Telework Benchmark Study that some enterprises can save between $3,000 and $10,000 per teleworker on real estate alone.

However, teleworking doesn’t come without its fair share of hiccups. A recent study by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's ( RPI) Lally School of Management & Technology  found that in-office coworkers of telecommuters are less satisfied as the number of teleworkers within an organization increases. Timothy Golden, associate professor at RPI, believes the study is a signal to managers that they need to be cognizant of how they manage a telecommuting team if they want to maximize satisfaction of all workers.

“This study doesn't suggest that teleworking is necessarily detrimental,” Golden said.  “But rather that managers need to take steps to be aware of the full consequences of teleworking and to ensure that they take appropriate steps to avoid or mitigate any adverse impacts.”

Golden is among many experts on the subject who believes that the implementation of telework depends on the right mix of management best practices in order to ensure success in the eyes of company leadership, teleworkers themselves and their teammates in the office.

In order to help our readers maximize their telework efforts, Baseline has synthesized advice from the experts. We found that many of the most critical remote worker management principals fall into four categories:

  • Setting clear expectations
  • Keeping lines of communication open
  • Ensuring adequate face-to-face time
  • Developing a culture of flexibility

Setting Clear Expectations
Managers who resist the telework movement tend to do so because they often fear that they will be unable to control workers when they are out of sight, says Rose Stanley, practice leader for the human resources organization World at Work.

“The reason they don't feel comfortable managing a remote workforce or teleworkers is because they feel they need to see them in order to manage them,” Stanley said. “What we try to do is to change that mindset into one where they are managing by results rather than attendance. What research has also found is that employees are usually more productively when they are allowed to work in a more autonomous manner so they can work when and where and how they work best.”

When working within a results-oriented paradigm, it is critical that all parties have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.

“There definitely needs to be some definitions of how things are going to work: how you are going to communicate, how you're going to get your work done, and how we're going to check on the progress,” Stanley said.

One of the most effective ways to define expectations is to develop a written telework policy and agreement.

“It the reason for a formalized policy is because it spells out the expectations of the worker so that they worker can give results comprable to in-office work,” says Brownlee Thomas, analyst with Forrester Research. She says that a telework policy and agreement can also standardize IT equipment requirements and stipends, cover safety and liability issues and requirements regarding protection of company information.

In addition to the agreement, training can also go a long way toward establishing expectations. Golden says that he has seen some of the best companies go so far as to develop training programs that include practice offices where workers can simulate working offsite before actually doing so.

But training shouldn’t just be reserved for the teleworkers. Stanley says that it is critical to also train management and coworkers on how to work effectively with the teleworker.

“You have to train everybody,” Stanley said. “You cannot just train a teleworker on how to be a good teleworker. You have to also train the manager and teach them how to manage by results and you have to train the coworkers how to communicate and work with teleworkers when they’re not in the office. If you leave them out, you're destined for problems.”

Keeping Lines of Communication Open

Because management and coworkers cannot simply pop into a teleworker’s office to chat about a problem, there needs to be a well-established line of communication to ensure that operations run smoothly.

“It needs to be made as seamless as possible for it to work successfully,” Stanley said.

When initially setting expectations, either verbally or through a telework agreement, the most important item to be explicit about is availability. Once the worker understands availability requirements it is up to them to ensure they can be contacted during the appropriate hours.

“No one expects everybody to be next to their phone all of the time,” Stanley said. “Even if you were in the office you are not going to be next to your phone all of the time. But you check your voicemails and you call back as soon as you possibly can.”

This should be an expectation made of not only the teleworker, but of management and coworkers as well. The managers who are most likely to fail with a telework experiment are ones who expect prompt replies from remote workers but who fail to offer the same courtesy when their teleworkers need to connect.

Keeping daily communication timely and plentiful can also curb in-office coworker dissatisfaction. According to Golden, one issue that office bound coworkers have with teleworkers is that they feel like they must pick up the slack when minor emergencies arise in the office. If they are unable to quickly get in touch with the teleworker then they bear the responsibility to resolve these issues.

“If someone is in the office and an manager stops by the cubicle, and says ‘Gee, i need this now,’ the person who is there right now is the person who typically gets stuck handling that,” he said. “If they perceive that the teleworker is not available or doesn't want to be disturbed and they may handle the request themselves.”

In addition to bridging the gap through prompt day-to-day phone and email replies, it is also critical to schedule regular meetings with managers and sometimes coworkers via the richest media possible, be it phone, videoconference or in person. This is especially important for remote workers who work far from the office and can potentially feel isolated from the team. Stanley suggests that at a bare minimum teleworkers and managers should set a regular time to meet each week.

Ensuring Adequate Face-to-Face Time
While technology can go a long way toward facilitating communication, nothing beats face-to-face meetings for solving complex problems and building rapport.

“Face to face interaction is considered the richest for media interaction in that there are the full range of contextual cues by which people can read and interpret the messages and information and the knowledge which individuals are trying to transfer during a discussion,” Golden said. “Technology has come a long way toward mirroring many of these qualities but there’s some debate within the research whether some of these technologies will ever to be able to truly replicate face to face interaction.”

Both Golden and Stanley agree that every teleworker, from the employee who works from home a few days a week to the telecommuter located far from the office, should be given the opportunity to get plenty of face-to-face time with management and coworkers. Stanley suggests that managers ensure that the occasional teleworkers should always conduct their weekly scheduled meetings in person, while the remote worker should make a trip to the office at least quarterly.

“Not only does that help the manager and that person reconnect , but it is really important for that remote worker who feels that they are isolated from their coworkers and from the environment and especially the culture of the organization,” Stanley said.

“This especially helps to create an atmosphere where everyone is successful when coworkers are working on teams.”

Golden believes that one of the biggest reasons that coworkers of teleworkers tend to be dissatisfied is because they are unable to build the same level of camaraderie within a team over the phone and through email.

“If you think about the typical office place, in addition to interacting over work related topics, employees typically interact in a variety of chance or informal encounters, by the elevators, by the coffee pot, and on the way to the restrooms,” Golden said. “These tend to be unplanned and generally informal kinds of interaction. As the proportion of teleworkers increases within a work unit, these types of encounters are apt to become less common and as a result some of the interaction which might have otherwise built camaraderie or affinity between individuals becomes less prevalent.”

Obviously management can’t replace all of these interactions lost on a day-to-day basis through telework, but making a concerted effort to regularly bring the teleworker back into the office can ensure that they happen occasionally.

“If they have sufficient levels of face-to-face interaction they’re able to potentially mitigate these types of adverse impacts in terms of how others percieve these teleworkers,” said Golden.

 Developing a Culture of Flexibility The success of telework within an organization is largely dependent on the commitment from management to make it work. “Finding a champion somewhere up there in senior manger is going to b e the most beneficial thing that you can do in order to get the line supervisors accept it because if managers and line supervisors don't accept it , it will not happen,” Stanley said. “They will break it maybe not intentionally, but they will break it if they don't see the value of it.”

One of the most effective way executives can exhibit this commitment is leading through example, Stanley said. She points to successful executives such as Accenture CEO Bill Green, who conducts much of his business from his home office. This example has helped establish a culture making it possible for most of the company’s employees to also telework.

Establishing a flexible work environment also means looking for alternative arrangements when teleworking won’t work for a specific employee or job function. After all, telework isn’t the only way to offer employees flexibility.

“Not everyone can telecommute, but there are a whole lot of things in terms of flexibility that you can do to make people happy,” Stanley said. “The more flexibility you offer your organization, the more you are paid back through productivity, less absenteeism, less turnover and a greater loyalty to the organization.”

These alternative forms of flexibility include flextime, compressed workweeks, job sharing, and shift flexibility. Fostering a flexible work environment also depends on the results-oriented management model that Stanley emphasized earlier. An organization that avails itself to this model can afford to give not only more options for work scheduling and location, but also how the work is done.

Even simply offering a greater amount of job function autonomy is a another great way to minimize grumbling from those workers who are not able to telecommute.

“Managers may consider granting greater job autonomy to those individuals who  remain in the office so that they may not be as adversely impacted by the absence of teleworkers,” Golden said.

“In other words they may grant them greater discretion in how they conduct their work activities, the interdependence of their tasks with others in the office, and perhaps even their latitude in how they schedule activities so they are not restricted or don't experience additional restrictions as a consequence of having a larger proportion of those in the office who telework,” said Golden.