Nine Attributes of a Successful Telecommuting Program

Telecommuting or telework is not only a great way to provide additional work/life balance to your staff and to increase staff capacity, but it is also an important part of a business continuity program.  With your staff able to work remotely, weather and transit events are less likely to affect your business continuity.  Your teleworkers can be online and working within hours.  On the other hand, it can be scary to have your staff dispersed remotely where you are unable to observe their activities and check in with them periodically.  If you believe, as I do, that the potential benefits might outweigh the risks, how do you craft a program that is a win/win for both employees and your business?

With 13 years’ experience leading talent management in an organization with a robust telecommuting program, I have found that a successful telecommuting program has all or most of the following attributes:

  • Viewed as a privilege, not a right—there are going to be requests for telecommuting that need to be rejected for a variety of reasons. A set of criteria that is very specific, including criteria on tenure and performance, is critical.  The ability to say “no” as unpopular as that may be is critical to ensuring that only the staff most likely to succeed in the telework environment are given the privilege.
  • Primarily for high performers—one criterion for telework eligibility should be high performance. Teleworkers should be maintaining performance evaluation ratings at the highest levels, as opposed to an average or successful rating.  While teleworking can make everyone more efficient and productive, successful or average performers will be more likely to thrive in the more structured and supervised environment of the office site.  Putting an average employee into telework may cause them to flounder.  At the first signs of any deterioration in performance, telework privileges should be revoked so that a performance improvement plan can be implemented under the close guidance of the supervisor.  This is not a punitive measure, but rather a decision to help the employee by providing the best chance for performance improvement and ultimately job retention.
  • Includes core business hours—telework is different than a results-only workplace (ROW) and works well when teleworkers are required to work a similar schedule to that of the office staff. I recommend setting core hours, for example, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., during which all staff must be at work, with variations of start and end times not later than 10 a.m. or earlier than 2 p.m.  Common hours of availability help to prevent delayed responses from staff members, as well as to develop trust that they can reach one another.  Telework should never be a substitute for childcare, and the expectation of business hours helps to ensure that work is not occurring in off-hours due to lack of childcare during the day.
  • Supported by supervisor buy-in and accountability—supervisors’ reactions to a telework program range from being “all-in” to opposing it altogether. If the organization implements a telework program, all supervisors or managers need to be held to the same standard in approving or disapproving of telecommuting requests.  All managers should be applying the same criteria, and if they do not, that should be addressed in their performance evaluation.
  • Considers the employee’s work style, not just the nature of the job—while it is important to look at the job duties and whether they can be performed remotely, it is equally important to consider factors such as work style. Sometimes the staff with positions most compatible with telecommuting, such as editing or writing, are the least interested in telecommuting.  There could be many reasons for this lack of interest, but most noticeable is often the need for the social and intellectual stimulation of the office environment.  On the other hand, sometimes those in less compatible positions with much interaction with others might be interested in and benefit from telecommuting to have focused time for long-term goals and projects.
  • Provides for some remote meetings—it is very important to move some standing meetings into a remote platform. The approach of having standing meetings during days in which all staff is on-site is not sustainable.  It leads to burnout as staff spend one or two days of the workweek running from meeting room to meeting room, impeding progress on daily tasks and goals.
  • Offers many ways to keep in touch—it is very helpful to use technology to offer choices for keeping in touch. A primary method should be via telephone, and staff should be encouraged to use the telephone to avoid long email trails and subsequent misunderstandings.  After three email responses, one should call the other party to discuss, especially if there is no reason to document the discussion at hand.  It is helpful to some teams to offer an instant messaging or chat option which creates less of a paper trail and makes it easy to ask a simple question or provide a quick update.
  • Includes face-to-face staff/supervisor meetings—it is important to find time in the schedule for staff to meet with their supervisors face-to-face periodically, even if by video. Many staff/manager pairs try to do this once a week, but this schedule can be difficult to sustain.  Once every other week could be an acceptable alternative.  These meetings are essential to maintain an effective and trusting relationship between staff and managers.
  • Promotes measurable goals—teleworkers should be crystal-clear on what they are expected to accomplish. The organization must be able to set clear goals for each staff member that reflect his/her role in achieving the mission and vision of the organization, as well as the current strategic plan.  Most importantly, the goals must be measurable to ensure that there is an understanding among the staff member, the supervisor, and the organization about expectations.  It is very critical to be able to measure an employee’s accomplishments when work cannot be observed.

A successful telework program can improve employee work/life balance and readiness for business continuity.  A telework program developed around these criteria can be a win/win for employees and the organization.

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