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.
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.