Telecommuting Becomes Succession Planning Tool

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 14, 2008
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Permitting telecommuting among fast-track employees unwilling or unable to relocate for job assignments is one way employers can keep top talent in their succession pipeline, says an executive search firm.

The days when an executive was asked to make five moves in 10 years is over, according to John Touey, a principal with Salveson Stetson Group, an executive search firm based in Pennsylvania.

“Instead, many companies are figuring out how to hold onto, or attract, top talent that can’t always relocate to company headquarters,” he said in a press release. “Ideally, companies would like to have the executive on-site every day, but they realize telecommuting may be the next best way to keep or attract talent.”

Using telecommuting as a part of succession planning is not prevalent enough, says Cali Williams Yost, flexibility strategy expert and CEO of Work + Life Fit Inc. based in New Jersey.

“Flexibility doesn’t even hit the radar screen in succession planning. It’s not on the radar screen…for addressing a variety of business imperatives, including succession,” she told SHRM Online.

The idea of using telecommuting as a strategic business tool for succession planning, she said, is “very creative and really forward-thinking.”

“Whoever was smart enough to see the strategic application of flexibility to leadership development in that way is going to be ahead of the game,” said the author of Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2005).

The resistance to telecommuting is rooted in its packaging as a benefit or perk instead of the strategic business tool it can be, she said. In fact, a 2007 Intranet Dashboard survey found 83 percent of 390 U.S. business executives—more than half of whom were in information systems/information technology—consider telecommuting an incentive or perk.

Overcoming organizational resistance to telecommuting requires a mindset shift, Yost says.

“I really think HR plays a role in that” by talking about telecommuting to senior managers as a strategic business management tool for how and when work is performed, she said.

“I think flexibility in general is seen as a ‘mom thing,’ and I think companies have made a big mistake making flexibility as part of their women’s initiative,” she said.

“People who aren’t moms and women don’t see it as [having] an application to them. They don’t’ see it as a business strategy; they see this as a strategy to keep moms [in the organization].”

Rebranding and repackaging it, though, gives telecommuting a “much broader, more impactful application” toward business and can be linked to the business management of succession planning, Yost said.

Educate yourself about telecommuting, Yost advises HR.

Challenging a Mindset

“Really begin to challenge your own mindset before you go out to challenge your leaders’ [mindset]. Talk to other people in your organization. See what they say. The danger in not [offering telecommuting] is that you are letting a very valuable tool just sit on the table unused.”

She advises HR to partner with someone in the organization to help advocate for telecommuting as a business strategy.

“Find a champion who will listen to what you’re saying and get it” and who might be open to beta-testing it among his or her work group. Working with a non-HR colleague will help ensure that telecommuting is not viewed as a touchy-feely HR program.

Also, find case studies or anecdotal examples, and take a good look at your organization; it’s likely telecommuting might be taking place but is not labeled as such.

Be aware, too, that telecommuting does not have to be an all-or-noting proposition.

“People automatically go ‘I’ll never see that person,’” if the employee is allowed to telecommute, Yost pointed out, but it doesn’t have to be an every-day occurrence.

However, she cautioned, “you’ve got to look at the reality. What types of management does [the telecommuter] require? That can be a combination of remote, on-site, planned and unplanned management.”

A Different View

While telecommuting can occur at the middle-management level in the finance, technology and service-oriented sectors, it’s not practical at the most senior level, especially in manufacturing where “leadership has to take place on a more personal level,” says John Olson, executive vice president of Cook Associates Inc.’s Colorado office.

The challenge to using it in succession planning “is how you lead on a telecommuting basis. By its very nature, leadership entails creating ‘followership,’ and you have to be visible to the team in order to make that happen,” he said.

That’s difficult to do by phone, e-mail and video communication, he added.

“At the highest level of leadership, leadership has to be completely visible,” Olson told SHRM Online. “Granted, we all travel, but I think at the end of the day you’re going to look for a leader who you’re going to take the hill with,” not someone who sends a Blackberry message to take that hill.

One form of telecommuting by high-level leadership that he’s seeing more of involves private equity firms allowing senior leaders to telecommute into the organization for short bursts at a time while keeping a permanent, out-of-town residence.

He pointed to one example of the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business in the Midwest whose permanent residence was Atlanta. The CEO lived in the Midwestern town for two weeks at a time, returning to his Atlanta home every other weekend.

It’s a scenario that can work in private equity firms—organizations that buy and fix up undervalued or underappreciated companies and sell then for a quick profit—because the firms desire the leadership those CEOs can bring and it’s made clear from the start that those persons are short-timers.

Often there is a senior-level leadership change that coincides with the acquisition, Olson said.

“The equity group and the new CEO will fix the business, sell the business at a profit (which is leveraged by taking on additional debt), and move along. Typically, deals are three to seven years. Increasingly the CEO is looked at as the big difference-maker in those deals, and in order to get the best talent, I’ve seen more and more equity groups allow the CEO to commute, given that they’ll exit the business in a short time anyway,” he explained in a follow-up e-mail.

However, beyond such examples, “at the most senior level of an organization, being a member of the community is important,” and that can be lost if organizations allow their most senior-level people to engage in that type of telecommuting, Olson said.

What Employers Can Do

For employers considering a telecommuting arrangement for executives, though, the

Salveson Stetson Group advises them to:

  • Screen carefully for people who are self-motivated and able to work autonomously without constant reinforcement.
  • Take responsibility for ensuring the telecommuter meets company goals.
  • Encourage telecommuters to have face time with others. Budget for occasional plane trips, if necessary, to keep the connection alive. Keep telecommuters apprised of relevant conversations.
  • Change the corporate culture if it doesn’t support telecommuting in some form.
  • Think twice before changing flexible work arrangements. Telecommuting and other such arrangements are among the most difficult types of benefits to rescind.

Telecommuters may need to keep thorough documentation on the progress of their work and their managers may need training in how to manage and communicate with direct reports who work remotely, according to the Salveson Steston Group.

And advice to telecommuters in a 2007 Yahoo HotJobs report included being onsite for important meetings and events, using instant messaging to stay connected, communicating more frequently such as through quick check-in calls and frequent progress reports, and increasing their visibility outside the company to raise their value to the employer.

The Washington, D.C.-based Telework Coalition also offers suggestions on telecommuting as part of a business continuity plan, including developing a written list of policies and procedures for the telecommuter.

The tips can be adapted to other employees as succession extends to middle-manager level at some places, according to research that SHRM Online reported in February 2008.

Among 2,556 senior HR and training and development executives, 46 percent said their organizations have extended succession planning to mid-level managers.

Not offering telecommuting—especially to fast-track employees—places organizations in danger of losing valuable employees, business continuity and customers, said Pam Kassner of Super Pear Strategies, quoting Karol Rose, an executive with FlexPaths and an author of books on HR issues. FlexPaths is a web-based provider of workplace flexibility solutions

“The days of viewing flexibility as a perk are long gone,” Kassner told SHRM Online in an e-mail. “Flex, not face time, should be standard practice.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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