Making the Leap

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold May 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, May 2006Train supervisors to overcome their hesitance to manage teleworkers.

When sociologist Charles Grantham began advocating telecommuting in the late 1980s, he referred to it as the “future of work.” But Grantham, who caught the telecommuting bug as an analyst for Pacific Bell, found that the future was slow in coming. “We thought it would catch on faster than it has,” he says.

Now, as executive producer of the Work Design Collaborative LLC, a research and advisory organization, Grantham promotes telecommuting full time, and he explains why he thinks the concept has been unexpectedly slow to arrive: “The real impediment is the resistance of middle managers.”

Other experts agree, and some add that the vast majority of organizations do not provide managers with training to help them overcome their resistance. “If 15 percent [of companies] have manager training, I’d be surprised,” says Chuck Wilsker, president of the Telework Coalition, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes telecommuting—or teleworking, the more modern term. “More managers should be trained,” he says.

Many of managers’ concerns about telecommuting are rooted in a basic fear of change. But there is a clear set of knowledge and skills that can help managers manage teleworkers effectively. Employers should make sure they address managers’ fears and develop their skills.

“You need to mitigate the fear and develop an education program that helps middle managers learn how they can be more effective,” says Grantham.

Dollars and Sense

Estimates of the number of teleworkers in the United States vary widely, but most experts cite the results of the Dieringer Research Group’s 2005 American Interactive Consumer Survey, which found that 22.2 million Americans, or about 16.5 percent of the workforce, work from home at least once a week.

The number has been climbing slowly but steadily since the 1980s, experts say. And while early initiatives focused on how telecommuting could help protect the environment and ease transportation demands, recent efforts focus more on the bottom line. “All of a sudden, companies found that by doing this they could realize considerable savings,” says Wilsker.

Most of the savings come from consolidating space. For example, Sun Microsystems Inc., the network technology innovator based in Santa Clara, Calif., said it saved $69 million in real estate costs in 2005 as a result of its telework program, iWork. Telecommunications giant AT&T, another telework leader, reported to the U.S. Congress in March 2001 that it had saved $25 million per year in real estate costs since implementing its formal telework program in 1992.

But it’s not all about money. “Telework has become more important than ever for continuity of operations,” says Dan Green, deputy associate director for employee and family support policy at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). “It’s a very important tool to allow operations to continue while dealing with emergency situations, or a pandemic should there be one.” (For more on pandemics, see the cover story.) Since 2000, all federal agencies have been required by law to have teleworking policies in place; in 2004, 19 percent of federal employees teleworked at least one day a week.

Telework can also be a “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Com-mission guidelines, according to Judy Young, corporate training coordinator for the National Business and Disability Council, based in Albertson, N.Y.

Of course, there are financial benefits for employees as well. Teleworking can reduce transportation time and costs, and it can help support work/life balance. Those benefits can help employers attract and retain the best workers. “Telework will assist us in being an employer of choice,” Green says.

Getting Managers’ Buy-In

Stressing the sound business reasons behind telework should be the foundation of any manager training program, experts say. “It can’t just be a cool HR thing,” says Debra A. Dinnocenzo, president of ALLearnatives Inc., a telework training consulting firm based in Wexford, Pa. “The tie to business strategy is so much more compelling. Most managers, if their compensation is tied to the company growing and prospering, will get on board.”

It’s also important for managers to see that senior leadership fully supports the initiative. Consider having a member of senior management make brief remarks outlining the business strategy as part of the training session, to demonstrate the company’s commitment.

“Middle managers are thinking, ‘Is this the latest fad or something that the bosses really mean?’ ” says Joann Pratt, a telework training consultant in Dallas. “If upper management says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and managers continue to get feedback that reinforces that message, they get more comfortable.”

The next step is to clear the air with an open discussion of managers’ concerns. “There has to be a way to get those managers to a neutral position,” says Gil Gordon, a telework consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J. “Let them give voice to their doubts, concerns and fears.” The trainer might note all the concerns on a white board or flip chart, and then refer back to the list at the end of the session to make sure all concerns were addressed. As an alternative, Dinnocenzo recommends using a pretraining survey to pinpoint managers’ areas of concern before finalizing the program.

Typical issues include employee accessibility and productivity, as well as managers’ concerns that telework will make their jobs obsolete. At Sun Microsystems, managers were skeptical of the iWork initiative—until they saw the results. “Middle management expressed serious doubts—‘We don’t know what they’re doing;’ ‘They’re not working;’ ‘They’re not productive,’ ” says Ann Bamesberger, senior director of the company’s iWork Solutions Group. “But we found that our remote employees were among our most excellent performers.”

Trainers can offer exercises to help debunk erroneous assumptions, such as the one that in-house workers are always available—cited by some who are concerned that teleworkers often won’t be available when needed. Gordon says: “Challenge managers to keep track for the next week—what percentage of the time do they get a live response” when they try to reach an in-office worker? “It’ll be a third of the time if you’re lucky. There’s a myth of constant accessibility.”

The Big Three

After the business introduction and discussion, the telework training session for managers should focus on three main areas: policies and procedures, technology, and remote management skills.

Consider including subject matter experts in the session. For example, a representative from the HR department could cover telework policies and procedures, while an employee from IT could cover technology issues.

The policies and procedures segment should cover how to determine which employees are appropriate for telework, how to handle denials of telework requests, how to expense responsibilities and reimbursement procedures, and any companywide policies on telework parameters.

Technology, despite its crucial role in telework, is often overlooked, experts say. Managers need to understand all the remote-management tools they have at hand—tools such as videoconferencing, intranet bulletin boards and instant messaging. “We take it for granted that everyone knows how to do these things, but don’t assume that they know how to use these tools,” Grantham says.

If time does not allow for technical training during the manager session, be sure to include information about specialized training resources.

The management skills module needs to respect the managers’ experience while guiding them to rethink the way they work. “Managers know how to manage; there are just things they never really thought of,” says Pratt. “You need to present problems to them in different ways. A lot of it is just giving them time away from their normal duties so they can think through how this is going to work.”

Focus On Management Skills

Telework training specialists say the management skills segment should cover communication, virtual team building and performance-based management. “It should be a problem-solving approach to training, rather than imposing something from a manual,” Pratt recommends.

Experienced remote managers say that listening skills are particularly important in remote communication. “You need to have a great ear. You can’t see problems; you have to hear them,” says Robert R. Gaudreau, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Regus Group, a workplace outsourcing solutions firm with virtual presence in 60 countries. Gaudreau oversees a global team of 600-plus employees, half of whom do not have a fixed office location. “You need to ask probing questions and be a great listener. Up to 60 percent of communication is nonverbal, and you’re losing all that.”

Communication skills are also critical to the team-building effort, particularly when the team is a mix of teleworkers and office workers. “A manager has to be more purposeful and deliberate to ensure that everyone hears what they need to hear,” says Gordon. “You can’t rely on the grapevine. When people are spread out, there’s the possibility that everybody isn’t going to find out everything. You have to bend over backward to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

To help managers understand the constraints of remote communication, Dinnocenzo has participants sit facing away from her in a dark classroom while she begins to train. “That simulates what it feels like to be remote,” she says. “It feels weird—they can’t see me, but they can hear me.” Then pairs of participants sit with their backs to each other and try to have a discussion. “It’s funny to see how they strain to look over their shoulders” to see each other.

The technology options introduced in the IT segment can be tied in as communication tools at managers’ disposal. But be sure managers understand when technological communication is appropriate and when it’s not. “Leaving a performance appraisal on an employee’s voice mail at 2 a.m. to avoid a confrontation—that’s not an appropriate use of technology,” Grantham says. ›

Using Brains, Not Eyeballs

Experts say the toughest obstacle is changing the performance management mind-set, but it’s critical to teleworking’s success. “Supervisors are not comfortable supervising someone they can’t see,” says George Piskurich, an organizational learning consultant based in Macon, Ga., and author of An Organizational Guide to Telecommuting (American Society for Training & Development, 1998). “They tend to develop mechanisms to check on what people are doing at home rather than checking on the work being done, and that’s a killer for telecommuting.”

Instead, managers need to learn to focus on the quality and timeliness of deliverables, rather than hours worked. Gordon says, “We need to teach managers to manage with their brains, not their eyeballs—assess the product, not the activity.”

Refresh managers’ skills in performance-based management with a review of basic concepts such as setting expectations, observing performance and providing feedback. “Managers need to think through the tasks they’re trying to assign and preplan the work,” says Pratt. “If the task is defined right to begin with, it allows the employee to succeed.”

It also helps to have a clear system in place for reporting task progress. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having good reporting and expectations set on the front end,” says Lorraine Veber, global director of sales operations with the Regus Group. Veber is responsible for the School of Excellence, Regus’ training program that is delivered in sites around the world. “The manager needs to identify and communicate the key performance indicators.”

Also, encourage managers to think about how their choice of words can reflect a performance-based mind-set. Veber coaches Regus managers to ask teleworkers, “What did you accomplish today?” rather than “What did you do today?”

A telework contract can help quantify expectations and performance indicators, and can provide an opportunity for valuable skill practice during manager training. “A contract doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” says Piskurich. “It just needs to spell out the rules and regulations, with some room for the manager and teleworker to fill in the blanks.” Consider reviewing a blank contract with managers during the session, then allowing some time for managers and teleworkers to hammer out the details together and share their expectations.

Tele-Schmoozing?

It is easy for managers to fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap with teleworkers. So training should touch on ways to provide development opportunities. “We spend a lot of time on training managers to encourage employees to manage their ‘presence,’ ” says Bamesberger. “The assumption used to be that you had to be in the hall schmoozing with the boss. Obviously, telework creates barriers to that.”

Team building can go a long way in this area, but managers also have to be particularly conscious of giving credit to teleworkers for completed work and inviting them to key functions. “The same things you would do for an internal person, you need to do for a telecommuter; it’s just harder to remember to do it,” says Piskurich. “They’re not part of the watercooler clique.”

Managers should be encouraged to switch all departmental communications—even invitations to social events such as baby showers and retirement parties—to electronic means that will be equally accessible to teleworkers. “The invitation alone is enough to make them feel like they belong,” says Piskurich.

Rethinking How Training Is Delivered

Telework forces managers to rethink how they run their departments—and forces trainers to rethink the way they deliver training. “It’s counterintuitive to have classroom training on teleworking,” says Bamesberger.

Some training specialists still prefer classroom training for soft skills, like team building and listening skills, but companies report success with a variety of delivery methods. At Regus, Veber travels to sites around the world to deliver classroom training. At Sun Microsystems, teleworkers and their managers have access to a variety of iWork training modules on their intranet training portal. The federal government offers telework training for employees and managers through its online training site, www.usalearning.gov, as well as regular lunchtime webinars facilitated by a telework expert. “They’re interactive sessions that go through scenarios that managers might be faced with,” says Barbara Kaplan, lead work/life program specialist at the OPM.

Most trainers say the material necessary for traditional training can be covered in a half-day or full-day session. If time allows, schedule simultaneous morning sessions of teleworkers and managers, plus an afternoon session that brings the two groups together for role-playing and other exercises. “Have them plot out how they conduct work in a typical week in the office—who is involved, the technology used, how many contacts they had that week and what type of contact,” says Pratt. “Face-to-face activity goes a long way to working out the bugs.”

Telework experts agree that Grantham’s prediction is finally coming true—telework is the future. Advances in portable, affordable technology are the main drivers of an increasingly mobile and dispersed workforce. “It’s embedded now in the way we’re working, no matter what you call it,” says Pratt. “Your office now fits in your pocket.” And while today’s generation of managers may need some help getting used to the idea, no one is worried about the next generation’s ability to work remotely. “Kids are IMing [instant messaging] each other right now,” says Bamesberger. “They’ll know how to do this by the time they become managers.”

Jennifer Taylor Arnold is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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