Wanted: Managers Who Trust Their Teleworkers

Experts say remote work can’t thrive without confidence

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright October 10, 2017
Wanted: Managers Who Trust Their Teleworkers

From 2012 to 2016, the percentage of employees who work remotely increased from 39 percent to 43 percent, according to a new Gallup poll, and employees who work remotely say they are spending more time doing so. Researchers who conducted Gallup's State of the American Workplace study found that engagement is highest among workers who work remotely three to four days each week.

Yet, some employers are questioning telework arrangements—especially since IBM, Best Buy, Yahoo and Bank of America have slashed or eliminated their remote work initiatives. In each case, leaders cited the need to improve collaboration, teamwork and communication as the reason for the change.

Little wonder, as technology that is meant to improve communication can all too often impede it. People seldom use their smartphones to actually speak to one another, and messages typed on screens sometimes fail to express our intent.

At the TRaD Works Forum held recently in Washington, D.C., panelists told attendees that some companies are wary about letting employees work where they cannot be physically seen. The annual conference focuses on telecommuting as well as remote and distributed work.

While technological advances have enabled distributed work worldwide, they also have broadened the divide between employees, colleagues and supervisors. Some feel those who work remotely are getting perks, and others feel those who are working from home aren't really doing their jobs. But the divide can be bridged with trust, the panelists said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]

HR Should Trust Employees

"You have to trust people if you're going to let them work in a flexible environment," said Tom O'Neill, an associate professor of industrial psychology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Leaders need to be confident that their employees are doing the work with which they are tasked—whether they can see them or not, the panelists added.

"[Employers] might be more willing to give trust," O'Neill said, if employees are transparent about what they are doing and making sure they're meeting their work obligations when they're working remotely.

Once trust is broken, "it's hard to get that back," he added. "If you can't trust people, then you have to look at why. What do you need to do to address that? Related to that are things like empathy; it's harder to put yourself in other people's shoes when you're not seeing them all the time."

Empathy is something more companies should have because "for some people, they need to work remotely—they're taking care of elderly parents [or] children. For them it's not a perk—it's an absolute need. In today's world, we can't separate work from our lives," said Karen Sobel Lojeski, Ph.D., founder and CEO of New York-based software company Virtual Distance International.

Remote Work Can Boost Productivity—and Uncover Problems

"The research says people who work remotely work more hours and much harder than people in the office because they don't leave their seats," Lojeski said. "It's a myth that remote workers are playing with the dog and going to yoga lessons."

But if there are offsite workers who are not as productive as their in-office colleagues, O'Neill said, "Flexible work brings forward some of the issues that are already there—such as cyber slacking—but it requires you to confront them."

Employers need to make sure that those who work remotely, just like workers who are on site, are doing the work they've been hired to do, he added.


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