Telework Controversy: Nine Thoughts on Working Remotely

Yahoo’s decision to stop employees from teleworking, saying that the best decisions and insights come from bumping into a colleague in the hallway or at the company cafeteria, has caused a stir. I originally stated I wasn't going to comment about the controversy, but find I am today after NBBJ asked me to write a blog post on the subject.

Drawing on my experience—which includes introducing telework practices within a large organization and as a full time teleworker myself—I've mustered nine takes about the practice which are neither pros nor cons, just observations. But before getting to those I want to state an overarching thought: teleworking is an individual and organizational performance variable and cannot be considered in isolation from other factors.

Take 1: Teleworking is good for certain types of work. If a job requires a great deal of travel then one is de facto teleworking. This means having the support and infrastructure to be self-sufficient on the road or in an aircraft, and suggests that decisions about teleworking should be made in relation to the type of work that is being done and the technology available to do it.

Take 2: Teleworking suits particular types of personalities and circumstances. I was amused to be sent this week a presentation titled '9 successful people who work from home' - all men. I wondered if there were any successful women working from home. Is one of my takes on teleworking that men are more successful at it than women? I think not, but I do think there is something about personality, motivation, resilience and discipline that come into play that makes individual teleworking more or less successful.

Take 3: Good technology is a must for effective teleworking. The technology is somewhat of a fraught issue in many teleworking examples that I've come across. Lugging heavy laptops because tablets are not provided is a case in point. Use of shared file drives that are only available on-site is another. There are many areas where work is less than optimum because the technology to make for good work is unavailable or patchy in its effective use.

Take 4: Teleworking expands the labor market. Where skills are in short supply in a local geography but available in other geographies it makes business sense to employ people who can do the job from where they are. As I am and do. This is one of the great benefits of teleworking. It expands the labor pool and opens up job opportunities.

Take 5: Flexible individual approaches to teleworking are better than mandates. Some people work better on their own and some people work better surrounded by co-workers. I think teleworking policies or mandates that do not recognize individual work-style, work, personal characteristics, choice, and circumstance lead to difficulties. A better approach is to have a flexible policy that accommodates not just the work activity but also the personal preferences and demonstrated capabilities of the worker.

Take 6: Managers and co-workers need to consciously learn the skills to interact effectively with remote colleagues. Many managers (and co-workers) don't know how to manage remote workers or how to involve them in interactions with the on-site workers. The skills for this can be taught and acquired but there needs to be positive investment (time, money, interest, etc.) in developing them. Anyone who's tried to participate as a 'dial in' to an in-room meeting will know instantly if the people in the room are aware of remote colleagues or oblivious to them.

Take 7: Learning to be visible on-site and teaching skills of inclusion are necessary. Related to take 6 is the issue of 'visibility'. A common complaint amongst teleworkers is that people who are on-site and visible to the powers that be (formal or informal) get preferential treatment over those who are not physically visible in the day to day. Teaching remote workers the art of being visible is probably a good idea, and teaching on-site people the skills of inclusion and recognition of off-site people is another.

Take 8: Teams of all remote or all on-site seem to work better than mixed teams. Teams comprising a mix of off-site and on-site workers seem to have particular difficulty but perhaps that's because of a lack of joint understanding and practice on what it takes to work together. A team which is either fully on-site or fully off-site seems easier to manage and be part of – perhaps because there is more in the way of shared experiences and expectations.

Take 9: Remote worker isolation might be mitigated by co-working. A lot of the time I like working on my own but some days I have found there's a certain isolation and I miss the camaraderie of the office. Saying hello to the assistant in the post office is not quite the same as chewing over the oddities of such and such a manager in the coffee area. To get over the times I feel not included and isolated I have thought of trying out co-working. Co-working is when an individual works in an office environment, but does so in a group, generally with people of a different company.

So, would I give up teleworking to work on-site? The answer is definitely not. I like being a teleworker and for me the gains of autonomy, flexibility, and productivity outweigh any losses. Could my lot as a teleworker be improved? Absolutely, but when I've been an on-site worker I've also felt my lot could be improved. Teleworking isn't an answer for everyone and neither is on-site working. What's your take on it? Let me know.

This post is adapted from Dr. Stanford's original blog post which can be read at www.naomistanford.com or by clicking the link at the upper right of the page.