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HP & Yahoo's Telecommuting Breakup: It's Not You, It's Me!

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First, Yahoo said it wanted to break up, and now HP has announced its love affair is on the rocks.

Telework has been having a rough time lately.

In both cases, telework was fed the same line: "It's not you, it's me... I'm going through stuff right now and I really need more collaboration."

It might get some folks thinking athat this is the beginning of mass telework jilting throughout Corporate America. But all indicators point to it maintaining strong relationships within the biggest and smallest employers in the country.

The dramatic responses from some employers to rein in telecommuting are just growing pains in the ongoing development of this social and business phenomenon, a relatively new event in workplace history. Telework is a tool with which organizations can attract and retain employees whose specific work-life fit needs include flexibility in where they work in order to be truly successful. It is not an inherent good or ill for society or organizations. Alas, that hasn't kept some executives from using work-at-home programs as scapegoats for battered bottomlines.

Telework started in the 1980's as personal computers found their way into the home. At that point people were just starting to get a sense of what was possible and telework was relatively rare. By the 1990's the possibilities for round-the-clock work (either through flexible hours or endless overwork) became better known and telework started to take off. Seeing all this amazing productivity made telework extremely popular, especially in industries where a lot of work was done in relative isolation (e.g., the early tech industry).

After three decades telework has reached the stage where it is no longer just a few exceptional, relatively self-managed people (professionals, managers and executives) engaging in telework but many average employees as well. With the expanded use of telework, however, comes the need to really integrate it into organizational practice, and the stress of that process is giving our new teenaged program some really bad acne.

It is perfectly natural for some of telework's glow to be fading now that it has to grow up into a sustainable and widespread program. When telework was restricted to a few people, it was relatively easy to ignore the fact that there were few social norms or administrative processes for managing this group of employees who were, by and large, already self-managed.

Now that a broader array of people is teleworking, it is becoming clear that more norms and training are needed for managers to effectively direct and support teleworkers. Teleworkers make it very apparent when an organization's only system for performance management is facetime. If you have no way of measuring an employee's contributions except by personally watching them contribute, then you have a management problem whether they are in the office or not.

Telework forces uncomfortable conversations about metrics, favoritism and communication that are easier to ignore when everyone is face to face and which become necessary when employees telework. For example, some research shows that a belief that teleworkers are slackers leads to a self-fulfilling prophesy of low productivity from all employees, not just teleworkers. Telework that is poorly managed will not succeed.

This means organizations need to examine whether teleworkers are really productive using metrics that don't rely on being personally watched by managers (a waste of money however you set it up). If teleworkers are missing the mark they need to be managed like any other employee and given the support, information, direction or other situation specific interventions necessary to get them back on track. For some this will mean bringing them back into the office more or even full time. The point is to actually manage teleworkers (and teach managers how to do that well), not merely make all of them cease to exist.

Telework isn't for all companies or all employees but when managed properly it can be a real advantage. For example, a recent Stanford study showing a 13 percent increase in measurable productivity among call center employees at one company when telework was piloted among a few employees. When expanded to the entire firm, that boon increased to 22 percent.

Circling back to Yahoo and HP's breakup lines, they said they wanted more collaboration. Both organizations are struggling to find new and unique offerings to establish a solid foothold in their respective markets. Innovation is going to be key to their survival and they are rightly doing anything that will enhance their employees' ability to generate new ideas. The rationale that lies behind bringing people into the office to "collaborate" is that facetime = innovation. That equation is way too simple.

What's really needed is:

Open Communication + Reliable Action Steps + Organizational Support = Innovative Products and Services

Open Communication:

Yes, putting employees in the same building together can help with collaboration by making it easier for employees to talk to one another. However, if their job takes all day to complete they won't have time to have the open, creative conversations wherein innovation occurs. They require collective opportunities away from the daily grind to imagine new options and how they could be put into practice. Lunch breaks are one such opportunity, but organizations expecting all their collaboration to happen during employees' personal time are gambling that employees will choose to use their personal time in that manner. It would be better to create organic work environments where employees have enough control over their time and work process to carve out official and collaborative creative opportunities as needed.

In addition, in-office conversations are not always the best method for collaboration, especially when you are looking for ideas from unlikely sources. Oral conversations suffer from what psychologists call production blocking: when listening to someone speak impedes your ability to form or convey your own ideas. Text-based communication methods, like instant messenger, can alleviate this problem by allowing people to think about what they want to share and provide it without blocking another person from doing the same thing. When using text-based methods you can take time to review anything missed while developing your own idea by scrolling back through the conversation, though participants may need to be reminded to do so periodically to reap the fullest benefits of this method. It may also be advantageous to share the text with people not present at the meeting so that they can follow the thought process and participate at a different time.

Reliable Action Steps:

Yet even if you get new and brilliant ideas flowing, there needs to be a way for employees to take thought to action. Does your organization have well-publicized and trusted methods of surfacing new ideas? Does the entry-level programmer have a way to get managers to hear her brilliant idea? Or does it just bounce around her coworkers at lunch one day and drift off into the ether like aroma of their meals? If ideas are being generated but there isn't a way to focus organizational resources to enact them, then all that collaboration was useless.

Organizational Support:

Finally, even if the organization has developed a way to surface ideas, one has to ask if the organization really wants those ideas. Managers may hear new ideas and then discard them because they are "too risky" or "don't fit with how we work here."

Change and growth is a hard thing for many people and pushing groups of people to change collectively is even harder, especially if you are pushing from the bottom of the hierarchy. If the organization doesn't have a culture that embraces change, growth, and novel ways of working then it doesn't matter if employees have brilliant ideas. Nor does it matter if there are reliable action steps if management tends to reject ideas not because they are bad ideas but simply because they are new ideas.

It may very well be that Yahoo and HP really do need more collaboration to achieve their dreams, but I question whether they need to breakup with telework to get it. And by cutting flexible work options at a time when employees are clamoring for more flexibility, not less, employers risk having the best and the brightest break up with them.

(Employers looking to learn more about creating a sustainable workplace, one where productivity and flexibility go hand in hand, should attend the SHRM and Families and Work Institute's WorkFlex Conference--Transforming Workplaces: Making Work "Work" in a 25/7 Economy -- at the end of this month.)