How many times have you had an e-mail exchange with someone that went on for three, six, even ten back and forth messages, just to set up a meeting? Sure, you could have "had the meeting" via e-mail or even picked up the phone and called, but sometimes you need to look the person in the eye to get across what you need to say or hear from them. E-mail and phone are OK, but it's not the same. So, you finally get the meeting set for a week from next Tuesday and then your boss calls and says you need to go to Dubuque a week from next Tuesday and the scheduling dance starts all over again.
The need to be physically proximate to people is programed into our DNA. It's hard to get over and it's not a bad thing because it helps build one of the most important things in a business relationship: trust. Without trust, we cannot empower our employees and partners (even our clients and customers) to be creative and innovative. In their very informative and easy to read book, Managing the Mobile Workforce, Michael Kroth and David Clemons, have a whole chapter dedicated to why trust is especially important to the mobile worker. Kroth, a professor of organizational learning and leadership and Clemons, a tech entrepreneur, interviewed people ranging from Fortune 500 CEOs, the Federal government's head of personnel, and international leadership and management thinkers. They all said that trust is a critical factor in success for the remote worker. In their summary of this issue, Kroth and Clemons write, "trust is a source of sustainable competitive advantage." Its something you can't succeed without.
So how do we build trust between the teleworker and their supervisors, coworkers, and others? One way gets back to the inherent human need for personal contact. Even if you telework every day, you need to spend some time each month with your supervisor and coworkers. It builds trust and it reminds them that you are part of the team. It doesn't even have to be in the office. One GSA teleworker told me that he meets with many of his colleagues outside the office more now than when he was an office worker.
Some managers (from government and industry) say that telework only works if it's a couple of days a week at most. I disagree. I know that if you address the trust issues and the personal interaction needs, you can be a successful teleworker every day. And technology has helped make this possible. So as I write these words, it's National Telework Week (more than 38,000 people are participating) and as a fellow of the organization sponsoring this event, it would have been a little disingenuous of me to spend the week sitting in my office. I do work from home, but it's still my office. So, I told Telework Exchange general manager Cindy Auten that I would spend the week working remotely from Colorado. Right now, I am sitting in the waning light of a beautiful winter day at the base of Copper Mountain (elevation 9,712 feet). I have full connectivity to everyone who I would talk to or see in D.C. Other than a need to acclimate a little longer, it's just like being home (except I can take a ski run during my lunch break).
So what about that need to "see" people? Well, that where the technology is getting really cool and cost effective. Call it video teleconference, telepresence, VTC, or by one of the brand names, its virtual meetings. Live and (practically) in person. I can look the other person in the eye and get the kind of connection (and trust) that is missing in the e-mail and even the phone call.
Low-cost, point-to-point and group videoconferencing is a game changer in addressing the cultural barriers to telework. The expression "seeing is believing" has basis in fact, and many supervisors and coworkers are more comfortable working with remote employees when they can see them. In addition, the remote employee feels more connected to the team.
No, it's not the same as being there, but it's pretty darn close. Good enough is often good enough and if you search for perfection, you may get nothing. Or in the words of the French writer and philosopher, Voltaire, "the perfect is the enemy of the good."