Employers are increasingly flexible about letting their staffs work remotely, but leaders still worry about drop-offs in employee engagement and productivity. Solutions are available for each major concern, however.
Why should an association implement telework? There is abundant data about its benefits: enhanced employee recruitment and retention, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, and healthier work/life balance. But for an association the answer to this question comes down to two words: member service.
A telework infrastructure, in which everyone has an alternate office setup and the know-how to do their jobs well regardless of location, makes it possible to always keep the trains running. Members expect the services you provide, even when you're under a foot of snow.
Great teleworking means great working, regardless of where you are when you do it. So, the first step in developing a useful, robust telework program is to define "great working," and then don't accept any teleworking practice that compromises it.
What do you want from your team, five days a week? Some answers are obvious: solid work product, superlative customer service, efficiency, productivity, teamwork, quality, availability, accessibility, self-management, and initiative. What else? Build the list. Then declare that teleworkers—like everyone else— are responsible for everything on the list.
Teleworking must be seen by everyone as a business methodology. It's not an entitlement, a perk, or a reward. It's a way to get the smartest work done, in the smartest way, in the smartest place.
Once you have a detailed picture of what great telework is, explore the risks you perceive, as well, and prepare to mitigate them, both with clear policy statements and with frequent performance management messages. Here are five topics of concern that telework tends to inspire, and how to address them:
Collaboration. Yahoo's recent decision to cancel teleworking because "speed and quality are sacrificed" when people are not physically together may have you concerned about isolation, reduced cooperation, and lackluster synergy. But we know those problems can happen even when everyone's in the same office, can't they? Travel schedules, meetings, personal leave, and overwhelming workloads can all wreak havoc with group interaction.
Counter this with clearly stated expectations. Telework doesn't mean working alone, just in a different location. Teleworkers must be active team members; they should participate well in meetings, bring in new ideas, mentor and be mentored, and never stop sharing and learning. Everyone should make the most of their face time when they're physically together; consider setting aside a day every week or couple of weeks when telework, travel, even vacations are discouraged in order to have as many people as possible present and interacting with each other.
Performance and productivity. Some organizations implement telework to increase supervisors' skills in managing for results, because seeing someone show up for work each day is not the same as measuring their work and holding them accountable for output. Managers and staff should engage in regular, clear conversations and alignment about each person's expected deliverables: the product, timeliness, and quality that's required five days a week, regardless of where the person is when they're doing the work.
Handling the unexpected. Office coverage, putting out fires—there should be a fundamental statement in your telework policy that reminds everyone that a teleworker may be called back to the office at any time according to business need. Telework days aren't guaranteed, and employees' approved telework sites need to be within a reasonable distance of the main office in case they have to come in. (It's a good idea to also have a policy statement allowing supervisor-approved substitute telework days, to encourage everyone to be flexible.)
Fair and equitable eligibility. The business basis for telework approvals should be transparent: It's critical to have a clear understanding of which tasks and responsibilities are telework-able, and which are not. Reading, writing, phone calls, and research are highly teleworkable. Hands-on patient care and serving walk-in customers aren't. Someone brand-new to the association might need focused in-house time to learn the people, systems, and culture, and thus may not be eligible for telework for the first few months. And let the policy state clearly that performance below "fully successful" means no telework.
Security. Your IT, equipment, and security policies should create the platform for safe and smart teleworking. Think through the systems and data teleworkers may need to access remotely, and be crystal clear about safeguarding personally identifiable information, protected health information, and other high-security materials.
The bottom line is that there is a great deal to gain from teleworking. The workforce is evolving, and the workplace must evolve with it. The best and brightest employees tend to be the same ones who want to do more with their time than be in an office—they're taking classes, volunteering, and highly focused on their families. Younger generations expect creative work arrangements and have no trouble jumping to an organization that offers them. You may also be at risk of losing your top talent because of rising fuel costs and stressful commuting. Telework, done well and right, helps manage the risk.
Dayna Fellows is president of WorkLife Performance, Inc. Email: [email protected]
Fellows will lead a Learning Lab at titled "Telework: Questions Every Association Should Ask" at the 2013 ASAE Finance, HR & Business Operations Conference, April 30 to May 1 in Washington, DC.