Advertisement

Keeping Out-of-Sight Employees in Mind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Business offices, like the poor, will be with us always--even though they are slated for a major face lift, and even though what we do inside of them is probably headed for big change too.

More people are telecommuting today than ever before, and the number of workers in so-called virtual offices is only going to rise as technology allows more labor to be done in far-flung places like homes and cars.

The greatest challenge both today and in 10 years is management of the out-of-sight worker. The greatest mystery facing corporate America is what our workplaces will look like in the future.

“I do not believe that we’ll see offices disappear from the landscape,” says Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates in Monmouth Junction, N.J., a telecommuting and virtual office consulting firm.

Advertisement

“I think the office as we know it will become just one place to work and not the place to work,” he says. “The office might look like a strange mixture of an airport airline club and an espresso shop and a public library.”

As more workers spend most of their time away from the main office, it will metamorphose into a place for meetings and resupplying. There will be less personal space and more communal work areas, known as war rooms, where projects are worked on by teams of employees likely brought together for a finite period and for just that job.

The result will be cost savings for corporate America as businesses divest themselves of expensive real estate holdings. But the potential exists for a huge management headache for workers and supervisors alike.

The IDC/Link Home Office Overview--an annual look at telecommuting--shows continuing growth in the virtual work force. The number of American households with home offices grew 10% between 1995 and 1996, from 27.3 million to 30 million.

Advertisement

Although that number will probably only increase, IDC/Link warns that ongoing corporate downsizing will force workers in telecommuting programs to prove an increase in productivity. The days of telecommuting experiments are over, the latest study proclaimed; it’s time for the virtual office to prove its worth.

“Whether you are running a business from home, bringing work home from the office in the evenings or working as a true telecommuter, you need to demonstrate meaningful performance gains,” says Raymond Boggs, director of the firm’s Home Office Program.

The biggest management hurdle facing the brave new world of the virtual office is “the attitude of top managers” themselves, contends Philip Burgess, president of Center for the New West, a nonprofit think tank in Denver.

“There’s a tendency to manage by presence, not by performance,” Burgess says. “Until you get managers who manage by performance--not the time clock-- you’re going to have a problem.”

Burgess’ advice to home office workers is simple: Remind managers of why they’re trying telecommuting projects in the first place, “not because it’s possible. It’s to reduce costs.”

It also raises morale, increases worker buy-in to projects, lowers health-care costs because telecommuters are often contract workers and improves employee recruitment and retention, he says.

“You start adding all these things together, and what they really add up to is improved productivity,” Burgess says. Tell that to your boss.

Another top management tendency that gets telecommuting programs in trouble, says Jack Nilles, author of “Making Telecommuting Happen,” (Van Nostrand Reinhold) is a sort of “I’m the boss” syndrome.

Advertisement

“Programs often get scotched when you get a new chief executive officer or vice president who is from the old Industrial Age,” Nilles says. “They say, ‘Everybody back.’ They typically do it to show who’s boss. There are clear political issues in getting this to work.”

People who are basically good managers have little trouble adapting to telecommuting. Like Burgess, Nilles points to employee evaluation and communication as the keys to managing the virtual office.

“You as a manager have to know how to evaluate your people--what it is they’re supposed to do, how to recognize the results of their work, how to assess those results in terms of progress toward the goals of the organization,” Nilles says. “You need to communicate with your employees. You need communication skills, planning skills, the ability to set goals and recognize progress toward them.”

The problem, though, is that few managers are trained to do this even when they see their employees face-to-face. And the tasks that seem daunting in a normal office, where a boss can communicate with workers by bumping into them in the halls, all of a sudden get even scarier.

“But the manager of today--and tomorrow--has to look beyond appearances and look at results,” Gordon says. “If employees are given clear expectations about what the performance standards are and are held accountable, odds are they’ll deliver, even without the boss looking over their shoulder.”

David Meade, president of Telecommuting Success Inc. in Englewood, Colo., trains managers and telecommuters to deal with the new shape of their work lives and helps set up out-of-the-office offices so that technology will help, not hurt, the process.

What Meade sees as a major stumbling block in the management of virtual workers is the tendency of companies to put all the responsibility for making the new situation work on the remote employee.

“We suggest that these [telecommuters] are your best employees” Meade warns. “Give them a tool, not another job. Let them start from the first day of telecommuting with a well-planned program, the technology, ergonomics, good training for the managers and employees in place.”

Advertisement

Palo Alto-based Hewlett-Packard has invested large amounts of time and money in getting the kinks out of telecommuting. Like many companies, Hewlett-Packard has had some employees doing occasional remote work in informal programs as long ago as the 1970s and ‘80s.

But by 1990, with increasing clean-air legislation looming, the company got serious about setting up telecommuting guidelines so that workers could labor successfully away from the office. Its first experiments included 350 workers; today, between 3,000 and 5,000 of its 61,000 employees telecommute at least once every two weeks, says Jerry Cashman, the company’s workplace strategies manager.

“Management by objectives was extremely critical in the informal stage,” Cashman says. “It is more critical now.”

When the company first began its experiments with telecommuting, reports in the popular media were lauding remote work as able to improve productivity 25% to 30% right off the bat. The company found that measuring such improvement was an elusive process and had to rethink how it counted success.

“Where are we going as a company in terms of tracking productivity? We’re looking at effectiveness, not productivity,” Cashman says. “We’re recommending that organizations look at the measures important to them. . . . We’re investing in moving from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. It’s not easy or clean.”


Advertisement