Does Telework Work?

For many reasons, telecommuting and virtual teams are becoming ever more popular.  Should you make the plunge?  If you already have employees working at least part of their time at home, should you expand the program? Are there ways to make telework programs more successful?

According to human resource professionals (see WorldatWork), the number of employers offering telework programs has increased 40% this year over last.  But in June 2006, the CIO at HP – that bastion for flexible workplace practices – decided to “locate more team members together in several core sites to facilitate face-to-face interaction and increase team effectiveness,” essentially ending or reducing telecommuting for many IT employees (Computerworld) Other companies (e.g., Intel) have taken a renewed look at telework practices and pulled back some.

A few years ago while working with a major IT client to strengthen relationships with the internal organizations they supported, we found that the location of any two groups or of individuals in the groups was not a factor in strong versus weak or strained relationships.  Collocated groups could have issues while two groups in different cities could be very productive.  It is not just about face-to-face interaction.  So why do problems occur?

Like any other system, an organization doesn’t change in one way without that change cascading throughout, sometimes in ways we don’t expect.  If you move people and their roles to their home offices, even for a couple of days a week, you are changing the system.  The communication channels and mechanisms change, the collaboration processes change, and even the culture is tweaked, perhaps in unfortunate ways.  To implement an effective telework program, the entire organizational system must be considered.  What can you do to make the right choices?

  • Consider what the company will expect to gain from the program and what it is imperative not to lose when it's implemented.
  • Establish specific practices and procedures that are not too constraining, but that emphasize the “gain and not lose” considerations.  Include the types of roles for which telework will be acceptable, or even encouraged, and those for which it is inappropriate.
  • Specify measures for the “gain and not lose” considerations, as well as other standard productivity measures for the positions that will be allowed to telecommute.
  • Map communications networks in your company that may be affected, and understand how they need to change or can be reestablished in different ways.
  • As you would for any new position, select the right people for telework roles: the right characteristics, skills, and experience level.
  • Train both teleworkers and others with whom they interact on how to perform in this new environment.
  • Redesign processes, technology infrastructure, and management structures to support teleworkers.

Some companies have had significant success with telework programs, with some companies operating with a business model that is based on virtual work.  Strategic Perspectives can help you make the right choices, whether you are planning a new program or improving an existing one.