Telework is generally viewed as a work option of a small minority of North Americans, a work-flexibility model primarily used by women with children. But a recent survey by the Flex+Strategy Group found that our world has changed and it's time to adjust our thinking.
About a third of respondents – 31 per cent – indicated they do most of their work from a remote location, either home, a business centre, coffee shop, or other place. That's not a negligible number of people. Even more interestingly, it's actually slightly larger than the 30 per cent who work in a private office at their employer's site, while a further 33 per cent work from a cubicle or in an open office environment. (The remaining 6 per cent of respondents didn't know or declined to answer.)
The survey was of U.S. workers, but it's likely the patterns are similar in Canada. Cubicles, open offices, and remote locations are growing. And three-quarters of remote work, contrary to belief, is being done by men. Moreover, the survey found no significant difference between whether remote workers have kids or not – it's equally divided, not a parental ghetto. And remote work is sprinkled through all age groups, not relegated to any one cohort.
"Our workplace strategies are built around everyone coming to work every day at the same time and working in offices. But that's not happening. And when you haven't changed your culture and strategy to match reality, it doesn't optimize your operations," says Cali Williams Yost, who founded the Flex+Strategy consultancy.
In particular, she says working remotely is viewed by executives as an employee perk – a benefit primarily for women with children or younger employees who have a facility for mobile devices. But in fact it has become a core operating mode, without much attention by executives or much training of those working off-site. And training is required, for both the managers of teleworkers and teleworkers themselves to be effective.
Training and other assistance is also needed for the third of employees trapped in a cubicle, since it can be a difficult place to concentrate and complete tasks. Again, executives seem oblivious to this growing segment of the workplace. To the extent they address these matters, it's at the level of saving money: The more people working off-site and the more people crammed into a smaller space, the cheaper it is to operate.
A solution for cubicle workers – who, by the way, are mostly women – would be to allow more flexibility. Let them work remotely, for example, when they have a big project and must focus intently. But many don't feel they can take that option. "Those in cubes feel less work-life flexibility than the previous year, feel less control over their work and feel they get less training," Ms. Williams Yost said. They feel bound to the office, that if they work from home occasionally they will be seen as less diligent.
There would seem to be less angst among remote workers. Premiere Global Services Inc., which develops online meeting and collaboration software, recently found 82 per cent of telecommuters surveyed reported lower stress levels, 80 per cent reported improved morale, 70 per cent, improved productivity, and 69 per cent, reduced absenteeism.
But working from afar, they need to be able to collaborate better and Ms. Yost said they aren't getting trained in this skill. They have to understand how to use technology to collaborate and communicate; how to set personal expectations for working productively; and how to capture the benefits of the flexibility working remotely offers so they can experience a better work and life fit. Unfortunately, working from home can be complicated, as the boundaries blur between the two domains. "People need to know how to put up boundaries," she said.
Managers also need training to delegate responsibility and to work from a different viewpoint when subordinates aren't in their line of sight.
In the past, these managers could oversee staff merely by their presence. Now they need to understand how to assign work fairly without physically being present, how to give consistent feedback, and help subordinates set priorities. Essentially, the manager is partnering with the employee, and that requires a different skill set.
Expectations are important for both managers and employees to sort through. If a boss e-mails at 10 p.m., is that something the employee must respond to immediately or does the manager simply find that a good time to send e-mails and not expect a response until the next working day? Similarly, when employees aren't in the same office space, they need to clarify when they will take vacations and who will be covering for them. "If your employer doesn't offer training in how to handle this new setting, then educate yourself," she says.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter