Telework Isn't Just About Work-Life Flexibility; It's an Operational Strategy

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Feds need to let go of the myths about who teleworks and why.

The federal government will not reap all the benefits of telework until it lets go of some commonly-held myths and begins looking at telework as a strategic management tool.

That’s according to a new report by Flex+Strategy Group, which found that most telework stereotypes do not match reality. The typical remote worker is, for example, not a woman, nor a parent, nor a millennial. Among those who do telework, 71 percent are men, and there was no significant difference in remote workers' age or parental status, the survey found.

In addition, nearly one-third (31 percent) of the 556 full-time employees surveyed say they do the bulk of their work from a remote location, such as home, a business center or another location. At the office, the results also indicated a trend toward more open, collaborative workspaces, with the remaining workers saying they perform most of their work from open office space (33 percent) or a private office (30 percent).

At the same time, organizations have been slow to adapt to these fundamentally new ways of working, which could leave vulnerabilities in the performance and well-being of both their business and employees. Too many organizations treat telework as a disposable option, a perk or a tool to help provide working moms with more work-life flexibility, when in reality, it’s an operational strategy, Cali Williams Yost, a flexible workplace strategist, author and leader of Flex+Strategy Group, told Wired Workplace on Thursday.

“A profoundly large percent of work is being done in a different way than we have traditionally talked about work,” Yost said. “But because we have not absorbed that, organizations like the government have not dedicated the attention and resources required to truly integrate it into the way an agency operates. Because it’s a program, agencies put a policy in place, hand employees a laptop and say, ‘have at it.’ And then we wonder why it doesn’t work.”

For the federal government specifically, Yost said that while agencies may provide telework training to employees, in most cases that training does not go deep enough. Employees and managers alike must be trained on how to best manage their work and personal life, how to best measure and perform jobs both inside and outside of the office and how to collaborate and coordinate effectively.

“Those are the skills, tools and guidance not being given at agencies,” she said. “The reward and recognition system has not been adapted to reinforce what those skills and tools are.”

Still, with the culture shock remaining a leading barrier to telework success and implementation, as indicated by the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent telework status report, Yost recommended three areas where agencies can effectively launch their telework strategies: first, by embracing telework as exactly that – a strategy, rather than a policy – placing it on the same level as other operational areas of the agency. Agencies must also effectively train managers on the basics of management and technology; and third, agencies must reinforce that successful telework and work flexibilities are reliant on the equal responsibilities of leadership, management and employees, in part by aligning policies to support and reward the new behaviors and skills associated with flexible work. Yost outlined many of those new skills and tools in her new book, Tweak It.

“Most managers and employees aren’t getting that training, and it’s not enough to show them how to use their computer,” Yost said. “It’s about training how to best manage your work life in this new flexible environment in a way that works for you and your job.”   

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