There are dozens of benefits to creating a flexible workplace and supporting telework programs, but this venture is not free from challenges. Below, we present the Strategize, Transform, Implement, Recalibrate (STIR) model developed by ICF International to help businesses design and execute successful programs customized to their needs.
State of Telework Today—What's Holding Us Back?
The push for flexible work environments continues to gain momentum as employers look for ways to to attract and retain a wider pool of qualified employees, reduce stress and increase employee morale—and lower real estate and overhead costs. So, why is it that more businesses are not capitalizing on this venture and others have yet to recognize the targeted return on investment?
In addition to common concerns about the suitability of information technology (IT) systems, key areas of resistance to the widespread adoption of telework include reactions such as these:
"As a supervisor, how can I be sure that my employees are conducting their assignments effectively if I cannot stop by to talk to them about their progress and answer questions?”
“As a teleworker, how do I ensure that I am not overlooked for assignments or passed over for promotions because I am not within my supervisor’s line of sight?”
“My work team likes to collaborate to brainstorm solutions to difficult problems, share lessons learned, and problem-solve creatively. How can we do that effectively if the team is working remotely?”
The STIR model provides a systematic way to incorporate best practices to overcoming these concerns and guide organizations through the process of building successful, sustainable and customized telework programs that meet the demands of a changing workplace.
The STIR Model
The fundamental tenet of the STIR model is that telework is more than a transition to employees working off-site; it is a transformation to a better way of doing business.
Step One: Strategize
Demonstrating a compelling reason to establish a strong telework program will help to accelerate its acceptance and sustain the program. Each organization should consider carefully how telework can be a key element of its strategy. For some, the drivers for a robust telework program are a lack of office space or a need to reduce operating costs. For others, telework is a powerful recruitment and retention tool, particularly for those with high recruitment targets or long apprenticeship periods, or as a means to strengthen energy efficiency and environmental sustainability strategies.
Tip: Organizations should communicate widely the strategic value and successes of a robust telework program via their intranet, brochures, job aids, frequently asked questions (FAQs) and even on the telework application itself. Ensuring that everyone in the organization understands the “big picture” for adopting telework will facilitate greater acceptance and sustainability.
Step Two: Transform
Successful telework programs require all employees to communicate differently to ensure that interpersonal relationships and partnerships remain strong and sustainable. Innovative ways for holding productive brainstorming sessions and other meetings, duplicating hallway and water cooler chat, and fostering teambuilding and collaboration need to be developed to maintain highly productive work teams. Supervisors who rely on personal observations as a way to evaluate employee performance will need to use other measures of performance.
Once businesses recognize that telework requires a significant transformation, they can put in place change management strategies that include:
- Assessing the readiness of employees and the organization critically for this new way of doing business (e.g., suitability of infrastructure, business processes/policies, and the impact of the change on organizational culture).
- Identifying concerns of affected groups and addressing these in meaningful ways.
- Using clear and regular communications that explain strategy, acknowledge challenges openly and celebrate telework successes.
Tip: As employees begin to transition to a telework environment, increase significantly internal and external communications, using a variety of multimedia techniques, to build credibility and increase trust during this time of change and uncertainty. Acknowledge openly that the organization is undergoing a transformation and that there will be challenges along the way. Seek suggestions from employees regularly.
Step Three: Implement
Technology is certainly an essential component of a telework program. Without the technological advances of the past 20 years, telework on any scale would not even be possible, let alone desirable. Laptop computers, e-mail, SharePoint sites, communities of practice, LiveMeeting capability, and other technology tools allow teleworkers to communicate and share information with colleagues across the country and around the globe. However without supporting activities, technology is unlikely to yield the desired benefits. These activities include:
Establish a senior telework coordinator as a strategic leadership position. Designating a senior member of the leadership team as a strategic telework coordinator and partnering this person with designated liaisons throughout the organization will help ensure a smooth program rollout. The organization’s telework coordinator position should be full time and include the responsibility and authority to support program design, develop supporting policies and procedures, provide technical assistance and conduct evaluations.
Tip: Designate a network of telework coordinators who represent business units or departments to work closely with the senior telework coordinator in developing policies, sharing best practices and identifying key challenges.
Establish telework policies and procedures. A clear telework policy that provides an overarching framework with parameters, standards, definitions, rules and clear expectations for employees and supervisors lays the groundwork for operational consistency throughout the business. Many successful programs establish policies and procedures that are specific to each department or business unit to further customize the telework initiative for each work group.
Tip: Involve key internal and external stakeholders in developing the telework policy, key decisions and operating procedures. Gaining stakeholder buy-in from the outset will help foster trust and develop strong working relationships.
Assess eligibility for telework at a task level. In determining telework eligibility, look at the tasks that employees accomplish as part of their job rather than the position as a whole. For example, while it might seem counterintuitive to think that someone serving in a customer service or administrative assistant function could telework, these employees might be able to perform select tasks more effectively and efficiently, such as required paperwork, while teleworking.
Tip: If there are multiple employees serving in customer service or administrative positions, it might be possible to rotate schedules and the timing of tasks to accommodate telework one day per week.
Provide employees and supervisors with training and support. Maintaining strong performance in a telework environment requires employees and their supervisors to be well trained not only on their organization’s telework policy, criteria for eligibility, roles and responsibilities, and expectations for maintaining high performance, but also on the support that is available to help them develop new ways to collaborate and communicate. Useful approaches for addressing topics and sharing best practices include:
- Customized instructor-led and online training with small-group exercises.
- Job aids such as FAQ documents.
- Intranet pages dedicated to telework, including blogs.
- Communities-of-practice groups.
Provide an on-call coach or support group. Other teleworkers, managers and colleagues can provide a real-time mechanism for addressing emerging issues.
Tip: Remote workers can feel disconnected from their employer and colleagues without a good place to call “home” when they come into the office. Establish regular hotel offices for visiting teleworkers and encourage teleworkers to use their in-office time to work with supervisors, managers or other employees on tasks that need to be conducted in person, and to reinforce social networks.
Establish pilot programs to “test-run” telework program implementation. For organizations where telework represents a significant shift, creating a pilot program can help minimize risks to performance. Use the pilot program to develop metrics that look at how telework is affecting organizational performance.
Tip: Use performance metrics established during the pilot to advertise successes, communicate lessons learned and continue to build acceptance for telework throughout the organization.
Step Four: Recalibrate
Even the most successful telework program must be examined and adjusted periodically to reflect changes in organizational goals, the workforce, technology and the external environment, and to ensure that it is sustainable. Performance metrics—such as customer satisfaction indices, recruitment/retention metrics and real estate costs per employee—can be used to measure the real impacts of telework, cultivate greater senior leadership support, reinforce views that telework results in a positive return on investment and target areas where further investments could contribute to even greater returns.
Tip: Determine methods for evaluating the telework program at the outset, and conduct evaluations regularly to build a bank of performance metrics and ensure that changes are made as needed to adapt to new situations.
Robin Rodensky; Jan Rybeck, CMC, PCC; Heather Johnson and Margaret Rollins are human capital consultants with ICF International, which partners with government and commercial clients to deliver professional services and technology solutions. This article is adapted from a white paper written by the authors with other telework experts and thought leaders from ICF’s Human Capital Solutions (HCS) group, comprising more than 120 human capital consultants. Twenty percent of ICF’s HCS group telework full time, while an additional 25 percent regularly work from home or remote locations. For more information or to request the full-length white paper, contact Robin Rodensky at RRodensky@icfi.com.
'Best Benefits' Include Telecommuting
Fortune magazine's 2010 Best Companies to Work for list includes telecommuting among the high-value benefits that separate the best from the rest.
Out of the 100 Best Companies named, 84 allow employees to telecommute or work at home at least 20 percent of the time. The Best Companies with the highest percentage of telecommuters were:
% of regular telecommuters
Brocade Communications Systems
S. C. Johnson & Son
American Fidelity Assurance Co.
- Flexible Work Might Improve Employees' Health, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2010
- Make Employees a Nonmonetary Offer They Can't Refuse, SHRM Managing Smart, January 2010
- Done Right, Telework Ups Productivity, Job Satisfaction, SHRM Online Technology Discipline, November 2009
- Telecommuting Improves Employee Health, Productivity,SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, October 2008
Related SHRM Resources