Virtual Work/Telework — What Are the Prerequisites?

Many essays have been written about virtual and telework practices and application guides. Both the public/nonprofit and private sectors have numerous case histories with best practices about traditional telework or the newer virtual work concepts. You can download an abundance of policy manuals and consultant work products on where and how virtual work is applied. You can save this effort with known prerequisites for telework.

One focus that I will present is what prerequisites are needed in the organization before telework or virtual work is applied. My observations result from about 10 years in government, nonprofit, and college sponsored programs about telework or today’s modern equivalent, virtual work, aka, “work anywhere”. Gone are the days of poolside laptop work as contemporary personal devices allow work virtually within any network. However, telework can still fail in modern organizations. Why?

The Typical Prerequisites

Why prerequisites? After many observations of successful and failed telework I’ve heard and seen enough war stories to isolate the variables.

Needed: A Culture of innovation and trust and talent.

I have observed organizations where service programs are well established and the workforce is talented, motivated, and there is workplace trust. Recently I managed a large campaign and within minutes after meeting agency officials I could predict if the campaign would perish or flourish. If the leaders, aka “managers” , don’t trust the workforce, then the workforce will invariably underperform, and telework is no panacea for preexisting problems such as distrust. A better setting is where management is engaged with the workforce and the project managers and staff are empowered and entrusted by management; lets call this the mature workforce. People get their work done and there is no clockwatching or bed checks for occupied offices. There are no labor/management divides. Abundant teamwork, good morale, and a sense of expertise is visible. Any observer can see that with the mature service program there are no significant issues with the efficiency and effectiveness of the workforce. In this work environment, virtual work practices can thrive as both management and staff know how to complete assignments on time and on quality point. You can perform expertly inside or outside of an office in the mature service program. Manager and employee can communicate and trust across the wire.

A work product does not require the presence of the producer; there are established communication and delivery protocols for work.

When a service program is performing well, rarely does the team or producer have to appear. Customer survey scores meet or exceed established performance objectives. Questions or clarifications or the manager’s suggested changes can be communicated online or via a phone call. I am aware of some legal organizations that have at least a 5 year history of telework of all legal products, including pleadings, filings, letters, decisions, and interrogatories that are emailed to reviewers including clerical/support work products. I had to ask if these time driven, critical legal work products were limited to daytime submission and review and was surprised to learn that some work was submitted in the early morning hours, weekends, and holidays. The virtual work process provides a high quality, completed work product. Rarely are there any breakdowns or misunderstanding of the work expectations. As previously discussed, the telework did not displace the preexistence of a well functioning, mature workforce. If the virtual work process can work in a time driven, highly sophisticated legal program, then one wonders why it cannot work anywhere.

When an expected work product is so important as to necessitate close tracking and communication, then the telework process includes frequent and direct communication, such as Skype, email, phone, and texting. Experienced professionals know that critical projects and emergencies don’t rely on email but include real time video and camcorder communications. Staff and management don’t plan vacations prior to critical delivery points, although examples of failed virtual, work projects include such foolish leave usage. In summary, as demonstrated in the culture of trust, the organization expects good performance and has a culture of can-do. It has been demonstrated that some companies such as Automattic and WooThemes can work entirely virtual and still compete with brick and mortar service companies without the cost of walls, cubicles, and other considerable overhead costs.

Not appropriate for new, critical or high security information programs.

Virtual work is not for every project or organization. Where the records are subject to high security and the risk of security breach may be high, then telework may have to stand down. Surprised I might suggest this? Why take the risk of exposing personal, healthcare, financial or other information across the bandwidth? If laws, policies or politicians say this is too important to lose, then why chance it? Telework can still happen but perhaps in more secure environment, such as subleased office space, daily or weekly leased space that has a secured premises and web access. Unless you are fighting a war then you can’ afford to take chances with sensitive data when the solution is to permit virtual work in secured web environments. Nobody wants their health history exposed to open wifi networks. Not me. Not you.

Sometimes necessary given distance or need for unique expertise or high priority projects.

I once was asked about hiring an out of state expert when no other could be found locally. The government project was on a critical schedule and the HR department was unsure about income taxes, employee expenses and other out of state questions. Hiring critical employees from another talent pool, in this case out of state, is usually a reasonable fit for teleworking at a great distance. All other typical hiring processes should be followed including references, the interview if by videoconference, and personnel rules. In this case I advised that the distant teleworker be required to attend status meetings as necessary and to have the supervisor closely monitor early performance until trust is developed. The hire was made, the employee performed flawlessly but had to deal with the tax question and not have the agency provide tax advice.

Security software, procedures and polices in place before virtual work commences.

I have not recently seen any private, nonprofit, or government organization without information policies and procedures in place. Government agencies must adhere to laws as do private organizations that store financial and healthcare information. If the teleworker is new and bringing personal hardware or network into play then all such equipment, software and network must be reviewed and approved by the IT security expert. The US military has successfully deployed teleworkers across the globe with few security incidents. The teleworker must follow procedures when mistakes occur, so the personnel practices training for new or temporary hires must be provided and confirmed by HR.

Telework may not be for everyone or all instances.

Virtual work is not every work circumstance. Obvious misapplications are for inexperienced employees, problem prone employees, unwilling or untrusting managers, after a serious security event, or for employees who crave office settings. Surely we don’t force telework on people.

These are just a broad summary of prerequisites commonly applied when evaluating whether to start or expand virtual work practices. Keep in mind the “mature” organization with journey level employees and management with a good culture of trust and known goals and objectives, and not the new or struggling program or team that need more maturing as a group, when considering virtual work practices.

Geoff McLennan is nearing retirement after 40 years of state and local government work. He anticipates that personal technology will continue to drive changes in workforce behaviors. He can be reached at [email protected].

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