Managers at Work
“I am a new team leader at a small but rapidly growing company and am trying to learn the ropes here and grow a high-performing team. The company has a very general policy allowing telecommuting, which is fine and very much in keeping with my values. However, I have noticed that some employees on the team seem to take advantage of the policy and work from home more than I think they should.
“As a new manager, I don’t want to come across the wrong way, but I think our productivity should come first. (Only two members of the five-member team that I’m running are my direct reports.) I have spoken with a few other people in the company who agree with me. What’s the best way to approach this and still maintain some flexibility in our schedules, which we all need and want?”
How should you approach this? Well, the short answer is “quickly,” according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm that looks at emerging workplace trends. “Nothing demoralizes others more than someone who is not pulling their weight or is gaming the system.”
Lister mentioned a 2013 study that her firm completed on the federal government’s telework program that named “office slackers” as one of the big problems. “We were astounded by how frustrated people were about this kind of behavior,” she said.
Supporters say that the advantages of allowing work to be done remotely—such as improved productivity and morale and savings in commuting costs—far outweigh the negatives. Indeed, a report from WalletHub earlier this month showed that workers in New York could save nearly $12,000 a year by working from home. WalletHub factored in gas prices, commute times and the potential for extra work due to time saved from not commuting.
Despite the rapid growth, managers in many companies still don’t support telecommuting, fearing that employees who work from home tend to slack off. Since you’re new, you’ve become aware of which managers are in favor of this and which aren’t.
One answer that you could propose, Lister said, is to build performance criteria right into the company’s telework policy and an “individual telework agreement.” These documents should spell out the expectations in terms of employee availability and working hours.
“For example, some companies don’t care when or where you work as long as you get the job done,” Lister said. “Some companies say that if you want to go to your kid’s ball game at 3 p.m., go for it. For them, it would not be considered an abuse. Other companies may want 9 to 5 availability. That should be understood and applied evenly across the organization. If someone is abusing the privilege, they should lose it.”
Yael Zofi, CEO of the consulting firm AIM Strategies and author of “A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams,” said that while only two of your team members are direct reports, you still should set up a “team code,” or set of standards that help the team communicate and work together better. That could include, for example, the use of email or phone vs. texting, when issues should be escalated, the use of appropriate subject lines in emails and appropriate response times.
“The goal is to clarify and establish the relationship so there is more clarity about what is expected behavior,” she said.
Another strategy, offered by John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., is to gather the team together and communicate openly that you’re concerned about productivity.
“It may not mean that workers have to come to a physical office, but it means this manager will need to keep workers accountable in other ways,” he said.
“Maybe that means more Skype or FaceTime meetings or conference calls. It might mean regular reporting on how they spend their time or other measurable accomplishments. Perhaps you gather the whole team once a week for an in-person lunch to discuss projects and goals. Ultimately, it may mean that you will need to touch base more frequently with workers.”
Kim Houlne, president of Working Solutions, a firm that provides on-demand customer contact services through home-based sales and service agents, agreed that whether a team reports to you or not, you should still outline its overall goals and set individual objectives.
If a telecommuter is meeting objectives, be sure you publicly praise them for the effort. On the other hand, if the person working from home is late with deliverables and the goals of the team are being affected, then it is time to address the issue one-on-one, Houlne said.
Whether your team is weak or strong, keep in mind that slacking is common across the board, whether they are telecommuters or not, Lister said.
“If you’re going to have a policy around slacking, be sure it includes your in-office people, too,” Lister said.
To improve accountability for your telecommuters, Houlne offered another tip.
If you are concerned because the team member isn’t available when needed, ask everyone to stay on an instant message program, such as Lync or AIM during working hours. If you do that, it won’t hurt to offer a quick message or pleasantry as you “check in” to see how quickly a worker responds.
“The bottom line is they should let you know when they are not going to be at their desks, even if they are working from home. Ultimately, being remote means being responsive and responsible,” Houlne said
Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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