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Telework Backlash? Prepare Your Company

IBM has recently joined a growing list of companies (Yahoo, Honeywell, Best Buy, etc.) pulling back on their full-time, remote work opportunities. Though these were big changes for all of these brands, IBM’s about face is perhaps the most startling given their role in kicking off the telework revolution and a May 4, 2017 blog stating that “telework works.”

Yet, telework seems to be one of the things that gets dropped first when a company finds itself struggling. Looking at these stories most companies appear to be seeking solutions to sagging profits when they declare an end to telework. The rationale repeated in almost every story is a need for greater innovation that can only be achieved through more face-to-face collaboration. This rationale does have some legs as studies do show that closeness is associated with collaboration, especially when working with complex ideas and information exchange. However, collaboration isn’t an automatic product of proximity; more is required for people to create, develop, and implement innovative ideas.

As of yet there have been few concrete descriptions of exactly how an onsite strategy will promote collaboration. The lack of discussion of onsite strategies emphasizes how we treat onsite strategies as the default rather than just one option for distributing a workforce. This default thinking is the most worrisome part of the telework backlash as it will encourage employers to revert back, expecting things to be different without really changing how they work together.

Before ending a telework strategy, leaders and HR practitioners should consider the relative benefits of each and whether there are ways to achieve their goals without a significant change to the flexibility that employees enjoy. The following four questions can help get those discussions started.

  1. What is the value of telework at my organization? If telework is a key recruitment and retention tool, will you lose top employees when you end the program? How will the loss of remote work affect your diversity numbers; brilliant people with child and elder care duties may be lost if remote work was ended. Does telework play into your growth strategies, allowing your organization to reach into markets that your home office would otherwise struggle to tap? Make sure losing these telework advantages are not more costly than what you think you might earn from ending telework.
  2. Is telework being misused? This question goes beyond the obvious issue of not working a full day. It extends to cultural issues like employees working from home to avoid unpleasant coworkers or noisy workspaces. If your culture or workplace drives people to work from home, then fix those issues and see if people naturally gravitate back to the office. Otherwise they will come back but just leave again: for other jobs.
  3. Are teleworkers being properly managed? Managers are busier than ever and likely have little time for training on remote management strategies. Are your telework problems due to employees not doing their jobs or receiving poor instructions or little oversight? Make sure your managers know how to build collaborative relationships and have difficult conversations before you drag employees back into the office.
  4. How will ending telework benefit your company? Telework is a technique for managing how, where and when employees work. It is not a panacea and there are nuances to building an effective program. The same is true about onsite work: it is a technique that requires leaders to be deliberate about how it can and should work. Be clear about what you hope to get from switching to an onsite strategy and make sure everyone is on the same page with those goals.

If the result of this collaborative debate is that you should switch to an onsite strategy you need to consider how you will implement that strategy effectively. Simply pulling everyone back into the office isn’t going to work. Not only will you lose some staff for whom telework was a key component of their work-life strategy, but you will find your culture and workspace may not be as collaborative as you assume. Five steps that leaders and HR practitioners need to take to enhance collaboration are:

  1. Create workplaces conducive to discussing ideas: Workplaces need to offer a mix of work environments that allow for quiet individual work and interactive conversations. Open offices tend to be distracting, while cube farms are isolating. A collection of individual offices (or work from home opportunities) combined with an abundance of comfortable, shared conference space is one emerging option.
  2. Define work as collaborative: Employees need to believe that their own work is enhanced by feedback and that asking for others’ perspective isn’t a sign of incompetence. Keeping track of who employees consult on complex projects and the relative success of such projects could create a motivation for broader collaboration. Such network mapping could help with diversity efforts as well by creating a task-related metric of social networks that encourages speaking with many different people.
  3. Help employees find time to talk: Overwork is the bane of creativity, bleeding away the energy needed to originate and develop new ideas. Overworked people focus on getting things done now, not on ruminating on creating new and innovative options. If you want employees to collaborate and innovate, they need to have workloads that allow for more meetings and consideration of novel ideas.
  4. Create systems for translating ideas into action: Ideas are not rare; ideas that are fully developed and successfully implemented are. Employees throughout a company might have great ideas but hierarchical organizations are built to channel ideas down not up or around. To make collaboration work employees need to have clear methods of recruiting sponsors and resources to act on their ideas.
  5. Use reward and recognition mechanisms to encourage collective action: Why collaborate if your boss or teammates are going to get the credit? Performance management systems need to be adjusted to ensure that everyone benefits appropriately from contributing time to a collective project. Performance metrics should give greater weight to behaviors that contribute to team success rather than those that simply enhance personal reputation.

Workforce distribution strategies are a key component of today’s business landscape given rising costs of real estate and ever expanding options provided by communications technology. The leading companies will craft proactive, not reactive strategies, to ensure they continue to rise.