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Telework: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

by Trish Lomonosov / January 9, 2020

Imagine you’ve spent the last few years teleworking. After the initial adjustment period, you’ve settled into a comfortable routine. Your work-life balance has been restored. Feelings of dread no longer creep in on Sunday evenings as you think about the week ahead. You save on the money and aggravation that go hand-in-hand with a daily commute. It actually feels like you’ve hit the lottery - not the little one that is shared between you and 5,000 other winners – but the BIG one that is truly life changing.

Now imagine that your organization’s management pulls the plug on telework. Seems like a nightmare, doesn’t it? Well this very thing happened at the Social Security Administration (SSA) at the end of 2019, sending shockwaves through the agency and leaving thousands of employees scrambling to establish new work, family, and commuting routines in a short timeframe. Other government agencies and private companies that once offered telework have also pulled the plug on telecommuting in recent years. Such a move can have a huge impact on employee morale and well-being and may even drive employees to take their talents elsewhere.

Global Workplace Analytics examined the findings from more than 4,000 studies on agile work, revealing that the pros of telecommuting far outweigh the cons for both employers and employees. Employees who telecommute are happier in their jobs, more productive, and stay in their jobs longer. Employers save money in real estate and costs associated with attrition, attract a larger talent pool by reducing geographic boundaries, and reduce sick days. However, even though telecommuting is on the rise globally with more than two-thirds of workers telecommuting at least one day per week, some organizations are choosing to call their workers back into the office.

If the research shows that telecommuting is a win-win situation for both employees and employers, why are some organizations that once embraced the concept suddenly rethinking their policies? This blog will explore some of the reasons organizations have given for terminating or scaling back their telework programs. Stay tuned for my next blog that will provide recommendations for implementing a telework program that is likely to stand the test of time.

Communication and Collaboration

Among companies that have canceled or restricted their telework programs, communication and collaboration seem to be the most widely cited reasons. Amid Yahoo!’s inability to compete with Google, CEO Marissa Mayer infamously made the blanket decision to cancel the company’s long-standing telework program in 2013. In announcing her decision, she cited the need for improved communication and collaboration. Mayer took some serious heat in the press and from her rank and file employees as the move was widely viewed as an attack on workplace flexibility. Consternation and surprise surrounded her decision as Mayer herself is a working mother and Yahoo! employees expected her to support a family-friendly culture and work-life balance.

Similarly, Best Buy reined in its telework program in 2013 as it struggled to compete with online stores such as Amazon. In its statement to the press, the following justification was provided:

“It’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy, and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

In 2014, Bank of America (BoA) scaled back its 10-year-old “My Work” program that allows a portion of its workforce to work from home or from satellite locations. BoA cited its commitment to fostering an environment that promotes “teamwork and integration” as the primary reason for calling workers back into the office.

IBM helped blaze the trail by establishing its liberal telecommuting policy decades ago and was hailed as a frontrunner in providing a flexible workplace for its employees. But in 2017, amid shrinking profits, IBM management called employees back into the office and mandated that they “co-locate” in one of six cities. IBM’s chief marketing officer provided this justification for the policy change:

“There is something about a team being more powerful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder. Bringing people together creates its own X Factor.”

I’m admittedly not an IBM employee, but based on the outcry I read about in the press, I would venture to say that IBM employees who were perfectly happy with their telecommuting arrangements would describe their full-time return to the office as anything but “fun.”

The timing of the policy change is often notable, as major businesses that have called workers back into the office often seem to do so amid sliding profits. The more cynical among us may argue that disallowing telework during times of shrinking profits may be a mechanism for avoiding layoffs. Disgruntled employees may simply quit rather than returning to the office full time. But what long-term impact does this have on employee well-being, and what if the company’s top talent heads for the door?

There is no doubt that regular and reliable communication and collaboration among employees are vital to the success of any organization. Maintaining communication and creating a sense of teamwork can pose a challenge for even the best run businesses. Organizations that allow telework may find it even more difficult to keep employees connected to each other, responsive, and working as a team. But does this challenge have to be a telework deal breaker? I’ll take a closer look at this in my next blog.

Customer Service

When recently announcing the decision to cease its pilot teleworking program that had been in effect since 2013 for 12,000 operations personnel, SSA noted the need to improve customer service. SSA wanted to decrease wait times for customers over the telephone and in person, and also decrease processing times for program workloads. A report issued by the SSA Office of Inspector General had found that telework had resulted in increased wait times for visitors seeking assistance, lower telephone answering rates, and lower availability for appointments. But the same report also found that among employees who worked at teleservice centers, those who teleworked scored higher on all productivity measures than their counterparts who didn’t telework. SSA’s move to end its telework program amid conflicting data caused a swift and well publicized outcry by the union for those employees and Congress, with both the House and Senate demanding answers about why the program was canceled.

Inability to Evaluate Employee Performance

A manager’s ability to evaluate employee performance is vital to the professional growth of the employee and to the health of the organization. Accountability and transparency are particularly important when employees work all or part of the time in isolation. Managers must be able to answer the following questions: Are employees productive? Are they producing high-quality work? Do they contribute to the organization? Are they positive team players?

In addition to the stated need to improve customer service, Commissioner Andrew Saul also cited SSA’s inability to evaluate employee performance as a reason for canceling telework. A SSA spokesperson noted in the press that the program “failed to put in place controls to measure the effect on public service or provide management with the ability to evaluate employee performance consistent with the Telework Act…” Could SSA have found ways to more effectively manage a remote workforce without calling it quits on telework completely?

Changes in Leadership

When changes in leadership occur, new management often come with fresh ideas on how to improve an organization’s performance. New leaders may call on their experience in previous positions and may be inclined to follow those policies and procedures they deemed to be successful. If an organization has not carefully measured the success of its telework program, it could easily be on the chopping block during times of leadership turnover.

SSA’s decision to end its telework program for operations personnel was made just three months after a change in top leadership at the agency. Yahoo! and Best Buy’s changes in telework policies also fell on the heels of the selection of new CEOs. Should the existence of telework really be subject to changes in leadership?

Let’s Not Throw the Telework Baby Out with the Bathwater

Management at the companies I mentioned above provided a host of reasons for why telework didn’t work. They made good arguments. But in this progressive, digital age, telework is extremely attractive to most employees, and telework is generally expected to be part of an employment agreement. A company’s decision on whether or not to offer telework can have a tremendous impact on recruitment and retention of employees. Not to mention the overall well-being and satisfaction of your workforce, as well as the research regarding increased productivity among teleworkers. So, all things considered, is it a good management decision for a company to throw in the towel on its telework program? I would argue that most obstacles can be overcome with carefully designed policies and procedures that promote success for both the teleworker and the organization. A win-win, really.

Keep an eye out for my next blog where I’ll dive into some tips for making your organization’s telework program a success.

Tags: Telework

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Trish Lomonosov

Trish Lomonosov

Trish is a senior analyst/planning consultant for Fentress. She holds an M.S. in criminal justice and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Her personal interests include hiking, kayaking, and spending time with her two daughters.