Cindy Krischer Goodman

As telecommuting soars, perceptions — and culture — must shift

From left: Abdul Muhammad ll, vice president of digital development; Lisa Ross, president partner, RBB; Rafael Sangiovanni, digital producer; Mathew Strelitz, digital strategist, and Allison Lee, digital project manager. They are communicating via Skype with an employee who is working from home.
From left: Abdul Muhammad ll, vice president of digital development; Lisa Ross, president partner, RBB; Rafael Sangiovanni, digital producer; Mathew Strelitz, digital strategist, and Allison Lee, digital project manager. They are communicating via Skype with an employee who is working from home. rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

Do you have to be in the office to be considered a hard worker? That’s the traditional thinking — and that’s what many workers would like to see changed.

As the interest in teleworking soars, more companies are creating policies to allow some employees to work from home at least some of the time. But they’re also realizing it takes much more than that to make the newer ways of working acceptable.

Changing a culture that supports the policies requires upfront conversations about expectations, as well as coaxing leaders at all levels to focus less on where the work gets done and more on the outcomes.

As technology makes it increasingly possible, about 50 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with teleworking — that is, working at home some of the time even though the employee’s desk is still at an office. (That’s different from telecommuting, where employees work at home full-time for employers.) About 25 percent of workers telework often, according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, which tracks new data on telework trends. With as much as 90 percent of the workforce showing an interest in working from home, according to GlobalWorkplace, the many Fortune 1000 companies around the globe are revamping their office space around a more mobile workforce.

But without the right culture, managers and employees bump up against frustrating scenarios. At one South Florida company, managers complain that employees who use the work-from-home policy do so too frequently or are difficult to track down. At another, employees complain that when they work from home, managers make them feel guilty.

“Companies recognize that to get top talent, they need to do things differently,” says workplace expert Debbie Saviano, co-founder of Women’s Leadership LIVE, a Texas event company. “Those companies that create policies, understand the value of virtual working and open themselves up to it the right way are seeing the success.”

Most policies address the availability of telecommuting and what positions are best suited for it; what a home/work space should look like; and whether there is a trial period. Mark Neuberger, an employment attorney at Foley & Lardner in Miami, sees an increasing interest from employers in creating formal policies. “It helps the manager and the people working from home know what they should be doing and not doing,” he says. In addition, having a policy often helps with recruiting: “People like to see a company is open to the possibility.”

Managers still need to communicate priorities and deadlines and move past the perception that being present is what counts. One manager described the difficulty managers encounter with remote working, in the “Ask A Manager” blog by Washington, D.C., workplace and management advice columnist and consultant Alison Green. The manager wrote that staffers using the work-from-home policy two or more days a week were performing well; however, their lack of presence in the office was being questioned and made her team look bad to other managers. Green’s response: Communicate your expectations to your team.

At RBB Communications in Miami, creating a culture that looks past perception and supports working from home as needed has been a priority. Partners use the work-from-home policy as often as employees, removing any stigma that might make a manager reluctant to allow it. “We found you have to go all-in with something like this because of the feedback we heard from others about the problems that arise when a policy is offered but you don’t have management fully buying in,” says Lisa Ross, president of RBB Communications. “If you allow people to work in the environment they are comfortable in with the schedule they are most comfortable, you will get the best out of them.”

The firm also has addressed managers’ fears that a remote worker isn’t really working or won’t be able to meet a client’s needs by tracking whereabouts and availability through an app and calendar tool. Ross says that with increased communications, managers are more likely to know in advance when problems loom — regardless of where their team member is working.

Managers often cite collaboration as their reason for refusing a work-from-home request. Yet companies that have dispersed teams are finding that collaboration is possible — even when team members work from home. Accounting firm EY is one of those companies. Because of its global reach and desire to retain workers, the firm has made a big push to go beyond a work-from-home policy and create a culture where managers default to flexible work, rather than making it a special accommodation. Managers meet with their teams before every client engagement to decide how to make some work-from-home or flexible scheduling possible. “We empower our teams and the leaders to be as flexible as they can and still deliver high-quality client service,” says New York-based EY Americas Flexibility Leader Maryella Gockel. “The perceptions are out there, whether they are fair or unfair.” It has been results — the numbers — that have been the most effective weapon in changing perception and culture, she said: “Our global people survey shows when our people have more flexibility, they are more engaged, do better work and stay longer.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman writes on work life and workplace topics. Connect with her at BalanceGal@gmail.com, @balancegal or worklifebalancingact.com.

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