Experts: Telework Fails When Human Connection Is Lost

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright October 20, 2017
Experts: Telework Fails When Human Connection Is Lost

​While tools like Skype, WebEx, apps and other technology have improved telework in the last 15 years, colleagues still need human interaction to be successful, said panelists at the TRaD Works Forum held in Washington, D.C., recently.

The annual event focuses on telecommuting, remote and distributed work.

Where telework fails, human connections are often missing. Technology is a tool to add communication—not to replace interaction, experts said.

"I'm a fan of face to face communications—especially when you meet for the first time," said Kathy Kacher, co-founder of The SMART Workplace, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides leadership competency training for digitally-driven workplaces.

But teleworkers can't have in-person interactions, she admits. Videoconferencing or telephone calls can help bridge the gap.

Ceri Power, a global HR business partner for Automattic, an Internet company based in the U.K., said companies need to "cultivate a feeling of connectedness" for their teleworkers.

"You have to overcompensate [for] what you're missing by not having people in person," she said.

Karen LaGraff, vice president of North American HR operations at Xerox, suggested having employees create ways to connect that work for them, whether that's by phone, through video, or cloud-based communication platforms like Skype of WebEx. "Adapt your style for people."

Culture of Connection

Richard Rosenblatt, an employment attorney and partner at Morgan Lewis in Princeton, N.J., said telework success depends, too, on company culture.

"I do work within a culture where we are more accepting of [telework]," he said, adding that some of the firm's associates work up to two days a week from home. "I don't care where they are," he said, as long as the firm's clients "are serviced in the level they expect from us."

Automattic employees have a "digital nomad lifestyle," Power said. Employees work from wherever they choose in more than 50 countries. As a result, "We have to try extra hard to foster a sense of belonging," she said.

Automattic's culture is "about fun. We want [work] to be an enjoyable place to be." Employees are invited to post stories and photos about where they are on the company blog.

 "We're not together, but we have this sense of fun and were engaged in what we do," Power said. "We feel like we're one big family rather than a disparate group of people just working on projects." 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements

Choose Tools with Care

Tech tools help Automattic team members keep in touch on work projects, as well. "We track about 70 percent of our projects on P2-themed blogs, 25 percent in private chat rooms, and the rest on Slack. Because of the geographic variance, we're active 24/7. We care about the work you produce, not just the hours you put in," the company states on its careers site.

The panelists encouraged attendees to create a collaboration strategy and find the communication platforms that work best for their teams.

"I think it's important to create a collaboration strategy," Kacher said. "Technology has snuck up on us and we've all adapted—or so we think we have. [Now] we take managers and teams through a process and ask them, 'How do you want to connect? How many times do we want to come together in a week? What's the expectation for e-mail? Are employees expected to respond in a day? A few hours if communicating by text? What if there's an emergency how do I get to you?'" she said.

Employers should capture communications goals "in writing to clarify expectations and cooperation," said Stacey Elliot, Microsoft's executive communications director in the company's HR department.

Although, while Microsoft has guidelines, it doesn't have a telework communications policy "because of the technology and the way we operate, [telework] is in our DNA," Elliot said.

It's 120,000 employees in 190 countries use Yammer and Microsoft Teams to work in small groups and share documents when working on projects. They also use instant messaging and video to connect.

"We don't have policies in place. It's just how we do business."

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