By Annika Hylmö, Ph.D.
The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision.
≈ Theodore Hesburgh
The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it.
[dropcaps type=”circle” color=”” background=””]W[/dropcaps]hat is your vision for your company’s future? How will you lead to meet it? Companies are facing the challenges of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the cost of doing business is rising with real estate is becoming more costly and operations in demand of 24/7 availability and speedy delivery even in the face of adversity requiring the implementation of new strategies and structures. On the other, employees are increasingly demanding the opportunity to have a flexible work schedule while costs of recruiting and retaining key personnel are skyrocketing. Failing to take action means losing hard sought competitive advantages. Staying on top of the game in an ever more competitive marketplace means that flexibility is an organizational imperative. Offering remote work options to valued employees becomes good business, yet getting there often means traveling to uncharted territory. With a clear vision and strong leadership, you will succeed.
Companies implementing telecommuting programs save money. Sun Microsystems reduced its office space by 30% once most if its employees started to work remotely for a significant part of the workweek. Increased flexibility for employees adds up to customer satisfaction and sustained ability to compete in a global marketplace. It also offers the opportunity for important recruitment and retention strategies. As the generational demographics of the U.S. workforce are shifting and a large cohort of Baby Boomers transitions to new adventures, telecommuting may serve an important branding function for you as an employer to retain key stakeholders longer. It also helps to recruit younger talent who take remote work for granted. Overall savings from reduced turnover, increased productivity, and so on for most telecommuters is about 30% compared with in-house employees. With successful telecommuting programs, the bottom line improves.
Challenging the Vision
Managers often struggle with the decision to allow employees to telecommute. Some managers who are used to Management-by-Walking-Around find telecommuting to be antithetical to what they view as a good work ethic and resist the notion that people who are working outside the office could really be working as efficiently as those in-house. Working at a distance does mean that important personal connections between colleagues are easily lost. The old adage, “out of sight means out of mind” applies in all directions. It can be hard to build team spirit when team members have to communicate with each other in ways that don’t allow important non-verbal signals to be shared.
Telecommuting programs additionally suffer from concerns and questions raised from within the ranks. Too many remote work contexts are thrown together without much thought of the impact that telecommuting has on not only telecommuters, but also on colleagues working in-house. The opportunity to telecommute is often viewed as an individual “perk” as opposed to an integral part of a business strategy. When telecommuting is viewed as an individual benefit to be handed out on an occasional basis, concerns arise and confusion ensues. High levels of ambiguity and uncertainty end up leading to anxiety and frustration as questions of process and fairness take over any possible gains made to productivity and efficiency. Failure to lead the way to overcome these challenges means a lost opportunity not easily regained.
Meeting the Challenge—Leadership in Action
While some remote work programs are imbued with confusion, following a few simple strategies can start everyone on the path to a well functioning telecommuting program that the entire organization can embrace and support. Planning ahead will yield extraordinary results.
- Set the intention— Embrace the opportunity fully. Many telecommuting programs fail because of false starts and early stops. Avoid temporary pilots and case-by-case selection of eligible employees. Temporary pilots rarely take off into successful programs and singling out selected individuals to telecommute while others look on creates resentment. Instead, roll out the program in planned sequences allowing for ongoing assessment of successes and challenges.
- Prepare to move forward—and don’t look back. Begin by getting everyone on board. Survey as many employees as possible to find out what they see as the benefits of remote work as well as points of resistance. Identify job descriptions that work as well remotely as in-house. Employees know what works and what doesn’t. Listen to them, and then develop guidelines and procedures for what is to come.
- Clear the mist—make sure that everyone, not just the telecommuters, knows the rules of engagement. Share the guidelines that have been developed for selecting individuals and workflow expectations. Let everyone know where, when, and how to contact each other. Develop plans and programs specifically intended to continue to mentor and monitor the needs and success of remote workers.
- Enter the territory—selecting the right people means making sure that telecommuters are identified based on their job descriptions as well as their ability to work independently and in isolation. Take the time to train them on time management and work related expectations. Offer them technological and other tools that they need to complete the task. Train everyone on the new processes and expectations to make sure that they are onboard.
- Lead with wisdom—strong leadership and support is necessary for any program to be a success. As a leader, recognize remote work as part of an overall strategy. Recognize telecommuting as a way to lead the organization into the future by providing an opportunity to develop a strong, innovative culture. Embrace it fully by expressing your support openly and frequently.
- Celebrate results—the purpose of any remote work program remains to be successful in business. Ultimately, telecommuting can be a way to provide better customer service, speed up problem solving, or to remain in touch with the rest of the world while other colleagues are taking a break. Develop programs rewarding results rather than hours with a bonus for teams that bring projects in on time, together. Highlight successes in company newsletters, recruitment sites and blogs to show how much you value your teams’ hard work.
- Return home to celebrate—remember that you are all on the path together. Bring everyone together face-to-face as a team on a regular basis to connect and continue to build relationships. Provide opportunities to have fun as a group and to create memories that bind.
Telecommuting is here to stay. Future hires and retained current employees will demand it and business operations unable to sustain without it. As a consultant, researcher, and practitioner, my recommendation is that business leaders recognize the value that formally implemented remote work structures add to the success of operations. Developing new work programs necessitates the willingness to face new challenges and tread new terrain, so get the help of an external consultant with expertise in telecommuting to guide you. The investment will yield sustainable rewards beyond expectation.
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