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The Elephant in the Room: Overcoming Culture Problems When Teleworking

The topic of telework has long been an elephant-in-the-room conversation at work, even more so in recent days and weeks.

If your supervisor doesn’t offer it, but you find out later that your coworker next to you did have that conversation, then resentment and toxic thoughts might arise. In fact, global organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry conducted a study earlier this year on bias against remote workers. In a study of 753 workers, 78% say their non-virtual-working colleagues resent them for working virtually.

We see evidence in research that telework is growing – even in the government sector. In the 2019 State and Local Government Workforce Survey, flexible work schedules are actually summarized as a strength, in recruitment and retention efforts.

If you have worked in human resources for some time (both in private and public sectors), like me, then you are asking why more organizations aren’t doing this already. The answer lies in your culture. For example, your organization may be hitting all the right bells as it pertains to public policy but lacking sorely in the areas of employee development and, hence, workplace culture. Culture is not free popcorn or coffee or blue jean Fridays. Culture is regular communication with your staff – all of your staff, not just a few of those deemed “essential.”

So, when we ask about telework are we asking now because we have been forced to ask how we offer telework? It takes a global pandemic (COVID-19) to get employers to ask how we continue business operations to serve the public? Apparently so.

Let’s explore the reasons why employers have chucked the idea. Teleworkers seem distant, where the span of employer control is loosened considerably. It’s harder to stay in contact with teleworkers and to judge their levels of torch-bearing. In short, the supervisor struggles to keep them under their thumb.

Then, you have the communication issues which might speak more about the supervisor’s lack of oversight. Teleworkers who have been called back to the office because the telework program was deemed a failure have stated that they were not contacted by their supervisor for months or even years at a time.

Lastly, there are inefficiencies. For the most part, we have all the resources necessary at our delegated work offices, from toner cartridges to Xerox machines that can print hundreds of documents. Our offices are more equipped to be what we need them to be – our work locations.

If we dig into these reasons, we will find reasons to argue that we should be offering it more often. If teleworkers are distant, then we should be asking how we close the communication gap and measure every task taken. We definitely have the technology available to utilize multiple forms of communication and to time stamp every task taken.

Here’s another thought: Research shows that we are only productive about 3 hours out of an 8 hour day. So, if we are not that productive at work, then why do employers expect more in telework?

If a supervisor cannot stay in contact with a teleworker, then let’s get them back into the office within a week and find out what’s driving the lack of communication. Lastly, we have inefficiencies. This one will be the hardest to resolve.

We have to plan and strategize to be ready for telework. Performing employee surveys, benchmarking against other comparable organizations, and operating in a test mode for a given period will help us answer questions before we execute in times of need.

In short, we are talking about training supervisors and employees with the necessary social intelligence skills. We cannot just send employees home and hope that they’ll get something accomplished. We must have hard discussions when established, well-communicated performance objectives are not accomplished in a timely manner. We must have crucial conversations.

Lastly, a recent Gallup study shows that employees who spend some time off-site won’t suffer losses in their engagement and that there will be performance improvements. Job flexibility increases engagement.

And, today, we learn that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act has been signed into law. This law will exclude telework eligible employees, but it will offer financial relief to those who are not able to telework. For example, the law establishes a federal emergency paid leave benefits program to provide payments to employees taking unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak. It also expands unemployment benefits and provides grants to states for processing and paying claims.

In summary, what do we do with all of this information? Stay politically and socially active – but still keep social distance. We need to write our senators and other political figures who help make decisions. These times are new and dynamic. Staying strategic utilizing existing political forums will be essential to have a voice.

Angie has over 20 years of experience in the fields of Human Resources and Business Operations.  Her industry experience ranges from manufacturing to public administration. Angie has an M.S. in Personnel Administration and a B.A. in Psychology.  She holds professional certifications as a SHRM-SCP, IPMA-SCP, and PHR. 

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Victor Romero

What a thoughtful and common sense piece. Thx, Ms. Smith, for reminding us that constant and clear communication must be adapted to work both in-office, and via telework.