Telework is here to stay.
Sure, recent news events — reported abuses by employees at the US Patent and Trademark Office, Yahoo’s high-profile pullback in 2013 — may suggest otherwise, but research shows that remote work has become a fundamental way that a surprisingly large percentage of the American workforce gets their jobs done. Now organizations, managers, and individuals must catch up.
Telecommuting, one of many forms of work-life flexibility, should no longer be viewed as a nice-to-have, optional perk mostly used by working moms. These common stereotypes don’t match reality — allowing employees to work remotely is a core business strategy today. A recent national telephone survey of full-time US workers found that 31 percent of respondents said they do most of their work away from the office.
We need to de-parent, de-gender, and de-age the perception of the flexible worker. Among the respondents who said they did most of their work from a remote location, nearly three out of four were men. Further, there was no significant difference between remote workers with or without kids, and no significant difference in the age groups of remote workers.
If we can no longer isolate telework neatly into demographic boxes, that means we all need to acquire a new skill set to use telework to get our jobs done — and manage the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, in that same study, a majority of workers — nearly 60 percent — received no training on how to manage their work-life flexibility, and this lack of guidance made them feel like their boss had all the control.
To be sure, not every job can be done remotely, and not every person wants to telework. So we need to replace the current one-size-fits-all programmatic approach with a process that allows the solution to adapt to the person and the job. This includes training that addresses telework’s common failure points, especially setting definitive guidelines for reporting progress and delivering the work. We also have to teach managers and employees how to communicate effectively as a team — even when they can’t see each other — including setting clear expectations for availability and responsiveness. Finally, we have to review and revise regularly any type of flexible work plan to ensure we continue to meet the needs of the business.
The public fallout from a few poorly implemented flexible work strategies won’t make the telework genie go back into the bottle. But that means we need to fundamentally rethink the way we run our organizations, lead our teams, and personally manage the way work fits within the other parts of our life.
Cali Williams Yost is CEO and founder of the Flex+Strategy Group and Work+Life Fit Inc.