Teleworkers stay in the loop

Popular perceptions of telework as the playground for slackers and the disconnected don't jibe with reality, studies show.

As urban legends go, stories of disappearing teleworkers are compelling.

They go something like this: Separated from the civilizing influence of office work, remote employees revert to barbarism, sever all ties to supervisors and co-workers, and give in to base, unproductive urges — possibly indiscriminate Web surfing or, in extreme cases, golfing.

Those employees are never heard from again.

However, research and actual experience point to a different reality.

Conventional wisdom: Left to their own devices, teleworkers will become unresponsive to e-mail and phone calls from co-workers and managers.

Evidence to the contrary: A recent study reinforces plenty of anecdotal evidence that teleworkers don’t view remote work as an excuse to goof off. The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte analyzed employee survey data from the Office of Personnel Management and found that teleworkers feel they are held accountable to the same degree as employees who work in the office.

According to a snapshot of the organizations’ analysis published last month, that result counters "the view held by some government managers that those who work remotely cannot be held as responsible for their performance as those who are based in the office.”

John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said that in his experience, teleworkers are readily accessible. He managed remote workers while employed at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

“Teleworkers tend to be my most responsive folks,” he said, adding that employees who value the opportunity to telework are determined to prove they can do a good job.

“It is in employees' best interest to clearly demonstrate that this is a win-win,” Palguta said.

Conventional wisdom: Teleworkers miss out on important information for doing their jobs.

Evidence to the contrary: A telework study published in November 2010 by the National Communication Association compared employees who telework at least three days a week to mainly office-based employees. Not surprisingly, the report confirmed that teleworkers exchange information with others less often than on-site personnel. Yet both groups reported similar access to quality and timely information, said Kathryn Fonner, assistant professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

“This counters the myth that teleworkers are not going to have access to the information they need,” said Fonner, who co-authored the telework study with Michael Roloff, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

Far from being an impediment, telework’s reduced information flow emerged as a benefit in Fonner’s analysis. Teleworkers report higher job satisfaction compared with employees who mainly work in the office. One reason: Telework shields employees from back-to-back meetings, interruptions and general information overload.

“The idea that constant face-to-face communication is beneficial is not necessarily true,” Fonner said. “More is not always better.”

Conventional wisdom: Teleworkers will be absent at crucial times, making them lose sight of the organization's mission.

Evidence to the contrary: The Partnership for Public Service's study suggests that teleworkers aren’t decoupled from key tasks. The report found relatively small differences between teleworkers and nonteleworkers in response to the statement “I know how my work relates to the agency’s goals and priorities.” That suggests that some managers' concerns that teleworkers can become disconnected from their agency missions might be overblown.

Furthermore, managers who plan ahead can help avoid the potential for disconnection. Making sure employees are on-site when they need to be is a matter of coordination.

“You have to organize the work well in organizations that are big users of telework,” Palguta said.

Mamie Bittner, deputy director of policy, planning, research and communications at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, also cited the importance of planning.

Agency officials discussed telework barriers and opportunities — and what work could be done off-site versus what should be handled on-site. As for the latter, IMLS, a grant-making agency, determined that grant application reviews need to be conducted as a face-to-face interaction. However, the agency is exploring how much of the review process can be conducted online through webinars and other means, Bittner said.

Remedies

Telework experts cite education and training as essential to addressing the telework folklore that can stall projects.

“These misconceptions seem to feed management resistance,” said Robin Mack, CEO of Mack Global Consulting, which helps clients devise telework programs.

“Maybe the biggest thing we have to overcome is perception and culture — the idea that if you can't see an employee, you don't know if they're doing their work,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who sponsored the Telework Enhancement Act. “Training for managers will go a long way toward addressing this.”

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