Telework not meeting expectations — but expectations were “nonsense”

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/24/2003

The hype is gone, but telework will continue to transform how work is done, say telework experts.

A few years ago some of the enthusiasts of telework were pushing it hard and suggesting droves of people would move home to work, says Derek Neufeld, of the University of Western Ontario. When it didn’t happen some people interpreted that as proof telework was just another failed business fad and those early enthusiasts claimed they were victims of a backlash.

“I wouldn’t characterize it that way at all,” he says. “In fact, I see it as a phenomenon that has been growing continually and steadily. Certainly by no means to the extent that had been predicted but nonetheless it is a significant phenomenon and people continue to adopt it,” he says.

The hype about how telework was going to empty office buildings and everyone would be working from home in their pajamas was “nonsense,” says Gil Gordon, a New Jersey-based telework expert and author.

From the very beginning there has been mixed reaction to telework from employers, says Gordon. But in most cases, bad experiences meant something was done wrong in the planning or implementation.

Trial and error is turning to trial and success, he says. And one of the most important lessons is that the right people have to be chosen for the telework assignment.

“If a manager goes to people and says ‘Look we are going to make telework available, who wants to do it’ what you find is the first people to raise their hands are likely to be the least successful,” he says. People who are going to telework need to have the discipline to work alone.

As for any resistance from managers or resentment from employees not given the opportunity, the vast majority of that can also be avoided, says Gordon. It’s important for the organization to explain that telework is not a perk or preferential treatment for one employee over another. Rather a thorough selection process has to be in place just like there is for any placement decision, he says.

Equipment can also often be a problem. Staff don’t need top of the line hardware but if the organization has a choice between setting up 20 workers well versus 30 at minimum cost, you’re better to go with just 20 to start, he says.

Often when an organization introduces telework programs, it gets them looking and thinking about other more fundamental issues around how work gets done and what people are paid to do, says Gordon. And when managers supervise teleworkers they often end up being better managers because they become accustomed to evaluating people based on results rather than attendance. “One of the keys about telework is it forces managers to start managing with their brains instead of their eyeballs,” he says.

The Town of Richmond Hill north of Toronto originally introduced telework options for staff because it would be good for the environment by reducing greenhouse emissions as fewer workers drove into work each day. But management soon realized it was a useful tactic for improving job satisfaction, says David Calnan, HR advisor, legislation and policy with the town. Because most of the employees are dealing with customers or working outside of an office, most can’t participate in the program so the uptake has never been huge, he says.

When employees are working from home, the expectation is they should be doing more work not less by improving productivity, he says. “You are not loading down a colleague by working from home, you are actually helping your colleague.”

An important factor for success is leaders who manage by results rather than how much time an employee spends in the office, he says.

Picking the right people to work from home is also essential, he says. Employees have to be highly motivated and able to work independently.

Management also expressed to applicants for telework that they should have a home office. “We wanted to get the idea to the applicant that they should have a work area separate and apart from the residence, so they aren’t mixing elder care and child care with work,” he says.

“This phenomenon (of telework) was always one that was going to disappear as a news item,” says Bob Fortier, president of the Canadian Telework Association. But that does not mean it is disappearing from workplaces. On the contrary, it continues to grow, the growth is just silent now, he says.

Indeed, the concept is being taken to the next logical level as a growing number of organizations realize they can have people across the world working for them every day.

More companies are engaging in the “cross-border talent war,” says Fortier. “You have a company here that has work to be done, translation, coding, something universal that can be done online and they can get very cheap labour (from other countries),” he says.

Fortier said he is contacted “every day” by people, usually IT professionals, looking for telework opportunities with Canadian firms. They’re willing to work for a fraction of what Canadian workers with the same skill sets, and they’re even willing to complete a one- or two-week project to prove they are capable, says Fortier.

The basic recognition that the dependence on face-to-face time is more of a custom than a requirement will lead to even more fundamental changes in how work is done, he says. Service organizations have sent back-office operations overseas but there is no reason more specialized work can’t also be done by someone on the other side of the world, he says. “We are seeing just the beginning.”

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