Working Remotely...or Remotely Working? Part Two

Posted by: Michelle Conlin on January 31, 2008

It was the kind of spring day that golfers fantasize about—balmy, crisp, no wind. But there would be no links for Ken Wisneski. The president of business services firm Vendorseek and his staff were pushing hard under a crush of new business. So when the office’s toner cartdridge broke, Wisneski did his servant leader thing and volunteered his lunch hour to drive to a nearby Staples to pick up replacements. As he sauntered across the parking lot, he glanced over to the patio of Don Pablo’s, where the sun-dappled throngs were lapping up their margaritas.

Wait…was that? Surrounded by her three children and husband in a picture of leisure-class bliss was one of Wisneski’s employees—the same one he had recently warned about falling behind. She was supposed to be “working remotely.” Not enjoying a familla fiesta.

Caught in the act by the man. It’s the flextiming faker’s worst nightmare. Though such treacheries are the aberattion, they are on the rise simply because so many companies have opened the floodgates on working remotely. Indeed, seven years into the let-your-people-go phenom, a cadre of burned managers are beginning to ask, sotto voce: is it working remotely…or remotely working? “I have a lot of friends who “work remotely” for big companies, says Wisneski: “They play a lot of golf.”

Yes, working virtually has revolutionized the workplace, unshackling workers from nasty office vibes, bad feng shui, and the soul-crushing power of the cubicle. The butt-in-chair mandates of yore are ridiculous at a time when we collaborate across continents and carry around our office in our palms. The new workplace is platform and place agnostic. That’s why companies like Best Buy, Microsoft, and IBM have long encouraged employees to work wherever and whenever they want. It’s the future. And it’s great.

But as with any disruption, there’s a dark side. Just ask those for whom once-happening offices have turned into ghost towns, leaving remaining employees feeling like phantoms in Left Behind. Or talk to the managers who have made the fatal mistake of not updating their command-and-control managerial styles for the new new world that requires something akin to enabling an ecosystem. Also disenchanted: those who haven’t been able to figure out a way to effecitvely measure short-and-long-term output—rather than activity—for people they rarely see. “That’s the single biggest factor for success or failure,” says the Virginia Labor Studies Center director Robert Trumble, who has studied telecommuting since the 1970s.

Though the vast majority of employees adore the nouveau flex, there are those who are simply not wired that way. They feel socially unemployed. One executive headhunter in New Jersey missed office life so much—and got so depressed from working in his ratty sweats with unbrushed teeth —that he started putting on a suit and tie everyday before traipsing across his bedroom to his desk. “Some people don’t work well alone,” says IBM’s director of global diversity, Ron Glover. “They need to be engaged with others and close together so they can be supported and developed and performance managed.”

No doubt, in some companies, the pendulum has swung too far. “They opened up the ports on remote work without fully understanding the impact on management,” says Cisco senior vice president Gary Griffiths. At its most extreme end, the remote-work rethink has some losing faith in the notion altogether. After the Don Pablo’s imbroglio (“Just taking advantage of the weather,” explained the mortified underling, who later left the company), Wisneski performed a remote-work audit, since more and more of his staff were choosing to work anywhere but work. The process was revealing: deadlines were slipping. New business was piling up. Staffers were increasingly not picking up their phones. Wisneski then dumped the carte blanche telecommuting policy and reeled his staff back in, giving them just five days a year to work remotely. The rest of the time they would need a boss’s approval.

Wisneski isn’t the only one feeling uneasy. A recent study by Rensellear Polytechnic Management Professor Tim Golden found that the greater the prevalence of teleworkers in an office, the less others in the office are apt to be satisfied with their jobs. The non-teleworkers tend to find the workplace less enjoyable, have fewer and weaker emotional ties to co-workers, and generally feel less obligated to the organization, Golden found.

Such research is spurring managers to realize how vital it is to mitigate some of the adverse impacts of working remotely. According to Wright State University management professor Todd Dewett, there are four reasons remote work arrangements flop: choosing the wrong people, improper communication, setting weak or unclear goals, and unproductive home and work environments (think babies and dogs). That’s why Hewlett Packard now offers employees self-assessments they can take to see if they are cut out for the world of virtual work. Managers are also receiving coaching on how to deal with a largely invisible workforce.

Since the decision to work remotely has been found to have such a huge effect on colleagues, Marriott has changed its approach. Remote work arrangements are no longer something individual employees negotiate with bosses. Rather, teams work together to establish tailored guidelines, structures, and policies that will work for them as an entire group. “Managers who think they can allow someone to telecommute and they don’t have to worry about them as much as employees in the office is engaging in some kind of fantasy,” says Vic Schacter, chair of the employment practice at law firm Fenwick & West.

Perhaps no company has had more experience—or success—with remote work than IBM, where 40% of employees don’t even have an office. A recent internal IBM research study found that people who didn’t have regular contact with co-workers were less happy and productive in their jobs. That was the genesis of IBM’s new three-day rule, whereby managers are required to bring work groups together at a minimum of every three days—either physically or virtually—in a way that has nothing to do with the completion of a task or assignment. “What we are trying to get our managers to understand is to recognize that human beings need to have social contact as well as work and task contact,” says Glover.

TrackBack URL for this entry:http://blogs.businessweek.com/mt/mt-tb.cgi/

Reader Comments

june Langhoff

February 1, 2008 05:58 PM

Your article fails to mention that Golden's research was based on a sample of only 240 employees at a single company. Though the restults are interesting, it hardly represents a trend.

BTW, I liked your piece. Just wondering ... where is part one?

Vivian

February 2, 2008 05:20 AM

I think telecommuters (I've been one for over 2 years) have to realize its work. Yes, you can cut commute time off your day and spend it at the park or out to lunch. Yes, you can work into the wee hours of the evening if you want and spend more of the day with your kids (I do!), but those hours still have to be clocked and accounted for (even if your employer doesn't require it, its a good idea just to show YOURSELF what you've been up to!). Yes, I stay in my pj's past 6am, unlike my office colleagues, but I am out of them by lunchtime. You do have to brush your teeth, take a shower, organize your desk, get out of the house, stay connected to co-workers, so on and so forth. Bottom line? You do have to keep some of the JOB mentality. Otherwise you'll wind up thinking its a vacation so much that you just might get one- unemployment!

G.M.

February 2, 2008 04:56 PM

There's a pretty simple solution here: Just have them work from home 1 or 2 days per week instead of all the time. Working in an office can be draining. One day at home can re-invigorate a person. 5 days in a row with the same people can take a toll on a person.

Stella Commute

February 3, 2008 09:44 AM

You might want to take a closer look at that RPI study -- he looked at 240 people at one company, not exactly a comprehensive study of telecommuting in all its many forms. I'm glad you included some counterpoint from people with a little more experience (or any, frankly) in actually making telecommuting programs work. http://stellacommute.blogspot.com

mcp

February 6, 2008 02:37 PM

I don't understand what the issue was involving the woman eating lunch with her family. Was it not lunch hour?

Kathy

March 3, 2008 09:01 AM

Wow, what a sad and accurate reflection on the state of flexibility in our organizations. Reality is reality and perception is the result of individual insecurities. As long as a remote worker is meeting business objectives, whether they do it at 3AM or 9AM, that is really all that matters isn't it? Organizations with strong performance management strategies, excellent communication practices and high levels of trust have created powerful flexible work environments. Organizations WITHOUT these capabilities can enjoy long ours of micromanaging and dishing coworkers who are not "in the office"..... welcome back to Junior High School.

SuiteCommute

April 2, 2008 10:28 AM

Your article brings forth some great points. Many managers and employees, new to remote work, simply don't have the mindset or skills needed to be effective remote workers. However, many times this isn't their fault! It is an organization's responsibility to approach any remote workforce with support, training, and metrics. Employees need to know what is expected of them, i.e. how their home office should be set up, how to schedule their work day, what tasks should be done remotely vs. in the office, how they should track their time and pay, what safety protocols to follow in their home office, and how their productivity and work will be tracked and measured. Additionally, managers need to be instructed in how to effectively manage a remote team and individual workers. To date, traditional management training has not taught how to build a team, create performance metrics, or even how to communicate and build metrics for remote workers. It is an organization's responsibility to offer a structured plan that lays out a roadmap for the managers and employees reporting to them. It is this roadmap that will lead the organization to realize all the benefits of having a remote workforce. Without such roadmap, organizations will fall prey to what Ken witnessed, but with a roadmap organizations can reap the benefits of increased productivity, higher employee morale, lower overhead costs, and increased competitiveness. Just look at IBM.

Omair

December 5, 2009 10:38 AM

Hello,
I am an Accounting Analyst, working with offshoring projects for a consulting company and about to move to another country (Sweden), so I will be running some projects remotely from this swedish office rather then my local office (Brazil).

Once I will still be working for my current office, but using other office structure, should I understand I will become a remote worker? My concerns is where I am going to have two BOSSES going forward or not, having the follow both schedules and facing different gols.

I would appreciate very much to hear from you at omair_calil@hotmail.com


Post a comment

 

About

How can you manage smarter? BusinessWeek writers Nanette Byrnes, Patricia O’Connell, Emily Thornton, Matthew Boyle, Michelle Conlin and Diane Brady synthesize insights from the brightest business thinkers, critique the latest management trends, and comment on leaders in the news.

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!