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Experts: Telework Still a Hard Sell for Managers
Supervisors find creative ways to engage remote employees

By Aliah D. Wright  11/1/2011
 
 

What’s the biggest obstacle to telework? It’s not technology.

It’s management.

So some human resource professionals say they’ve begun to tie management acceptance of telework directly to managers’ performance evaluations and pay. Having managers telework has helped as well.

In mid-October 2011, 900 HR professionals, IT managers and others whose job it is to implement or manage telework at federal agencies gathered for the Fall 2011 Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Telework Exchange. Attendees shared ideas, best practices and tools for enhancing connectivity, improving mobility, and managing teleworkers. Sessions included training remote workers on how to minimize security risks, transitioning work to the cloud and tailoring technological needs based on telework requirements.

Telework Challenges

In a report conducted in June 2011 on the government’s progress, the Telework Exchange found that federal agencies are making positive strides in telework advancements. Yet a recent Booz Allen Hamilton and Partnership for Public Service study revealed that managers were the No. 1 reason why telework isn’t a widely accepted business practice. Other factors include lack of trust, concerns over data security, fear of employee disengagement and lack of face-to-face interactions.

Federal agencies were required to have telework plans by June 2011 after President Barack Obama signed legislation in December 2010. But having the plans and allowing people to telework are different things.

“Support from the top” is key, said Arleas Upton Kea, director of the division of administration for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Training managers on what telework is and how to use it, deciding which employees are eligible, and getting senior managers to accept it are the key drivers of successful telework programs, experts said.

The Telework Exchange has been hosting the town hall meetings since 2005. Those who have implemented such programs at their workplaces—many for more than a decade—added that having clearly defined policies, expectations, signed agreements and training go a long way in having line managers support telework.

At first, “our senior managers felt like if we couldn’t see them, they weren’t working,” Kea said. She said the FDIC made managing teleworkers a component of their senior management’s pay and performance appraisals. It helped to evaluate the managers “in terms of how they treated their people. We would survey managers and employees and hold focus groups to talk that out. It has been a challenge,” she said, but not one that was insurmountable. “People change. We have to really be looking at it constantly and address it.”

Two-Way Street

Experts say measuring outcomes is the best way to manage teleworkers. But maintaining employee engagement is critical. Engaged employees are not only more productive, studies show, they’re less likely to quit.

According to a global study released in early 2011 only one in three employees worldwide is engaged. The Employee Engagement Report from Blessing White was conducted among 11,000 HR and line managers from North America, India, Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and China.

“People indicate that they will extend their years at the agency as a direct result of our telework initiatives,” said Danette Campbell, senior advisor of telework for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose telework program began in 1997. She said more than 3,300 employees who work there as scientists, engineers and attorneys telework four or five days weekly. Nearly 75 percent of positions at their office in Alexandria, Va., are deemed eligible for telework.

“We want to retain this highly skilled workforce,” she said.

Piece of Pizza

Want to upset the telework apple cart? Send an e-mail to everyone announcing a birthday party for one in-office employee that excludes the teleworkers, says Jason M. Morwick, business operations manager for the Six Sigma Center of Excellence at Cisco and the co-author of Making Telework Work: Leading People and Leveraging Technology for High-Impact Results (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009).

Donna Gilmore has a different perspective. Ninety-five percent of her employees telework, and her agency saw a 55 percent production rate increase in one year as the number of teleworkers increased. Her staff is creative at keeping teleworkers engaged.

“We had one supervisor who ordered pizza for his whole [telework] team,” said Gilmore, personnel security specialist and telework program manager for the U.S. Air Force’s Central Adjudication Facility. “They all got a knock on the door at the same time with pizza from their boss.” Not an easy feat, since the workers live throughout the Washington, D.C., region, which includes the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

Another part of their success is training managers on the key elements of managing distributed employees, she said.

“Our supervisors must make daily contact—once a day; e-mail, call, etc.—through whatever mechanism they want to use. That helps that feeling of isolation,” she said, noting that she works from her home five hours south of Washington, D.C.

It’s up to HR to destroy the myth that employees who telework aren’t working, one expert said.

“You have to manage the work,” said James Neighbors, principal deputy director of the Requirements and Strategic Integration Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), agreed.

“Seventy-four percent of OPM teleworks—30 percent do it three or more days per week,” he said. “We have adopted telework as a strategy. Know your duties; know that work can be done anywhere.”

Aliah D. Wright is manager online/editor for SHRM Online.

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