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Managing Telecommuters and Office Workers

A five-prong effort to increase the effectiveness of a blended staff.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Managing a Blended Workforce: Telecommuters and Non-Telecommuters

Authors: Brenda A. Lautsch (Simon Fraser University) and Ellen Ernst Kossek (Michigan State University)

Publisher: Organizational Dynamics, vol. 40, no. 1

Date Published: January 2011

Telecommuting has become more common worldwide, and researchers have identified several benefits to working remotely: It boosts employee performance and satisfaction and reduces turnover and office costs.

One of the downsides, however, is the challenge faced by supervisors in handling a workforce that consists of both remote and on-site employees. Tensions can arise when employees don’t see one another or understand their colleagues’ workloads, and some who must work in the office will feel resentment toward those who can work from home. According to this study, which builds on the researchers’ previous work on telecommuting, the solution is to treat the two groups as similarly as possible.

The researchers conducted 45-minute interviews with 90 sets of managers and workers at two Fortune 500 firms. They also conducted a thorough review of telecommuting policies at other leading corporations. The researchers argue that organizations should strive to create a culture of inclusiveness, which means understanding five key factors that shape a firm’s stance on telecommuting.

The first element is gatekeeping, or deciding who gets to work outside the office and why. Some companies, like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, parcel out telecommuting assignments on a case-by-case basis, the researchers report. A better approach, they maintain, is to make sure that both teleworkers and office employees have a say in establishing the gatekeeping rules, ensuring more transparency in the decision-making process. A telecommuting assignment shouldn’t be permanent, either, they say, but subject to periodic review.

The second factor is monitoring telecommuters to make sure they’re working — but the oversight should be handled in a manner that isn’t burdensome. The study showed that the most successful supervisors monitored the workflows of their telecommuters and non-telecommuters in the same way. At the Travelers Companies, for example, the output of all employees is reviewed, and each employee and supervisor together agree on goals.

The third factor, social integration, requires supervisors to have frequent contact with telecommuters to make sure they feel they are “in the loop.” The Viack Corporation issues a written guide on telecommuting, urging supervisors to establish a “virtual watercooler” for the work team through an intranet or shared e-mail folder. This approach has a practical payoff: When on-site workers can communicate directly with those off-site, they contribute more to one another’s projects.

The fourth element, managing the work–life boundary, is especially important because child care is a huge driver of telecommuting. Supervisors are advised to meet the issue head-on, providing their telecommuting employees with information and options on implementing different approaches and schedules. An IBM handbook advises telecommuters to teach their children that “the parent is at work when he or she is sitting at the desk or in the office,” and recommends establishing a separate office and phone line as physical barriers against intrusions. Otherwise, as one telecommuter noted, if there is a screaming baby or barking dog in the background, “people get uncomfortable and irritated... and will tend to favor calling your peers or others for similar information.”

Finally, it’s important to maintain work-group culture. When employees have limited face-to-face contact, the researchers found, they are less likely to help their co-workers, especially in last-minute or emergency situations. Sending frequent departmental progress reports can be a good way to get employees to think beyond their own projects.

Bottom Line:
Implementing an effective telecommuting policy requires supervisors to understand how their decisions will affect both in-office and remote employees. The most successful managers take a similar approach to monitoring the workflows of the two groups and create a feeling of equity between them. Supervisors are urged to stay in frequent contact with their telecommuting employees to make them feel they are “in the loop” and a part of the office culture.

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