4.12.11 – Creating an Organizational Culture that Supports Telework

Quick story of a company I knew:  The company was in a very tough industry and suffered almost 30% attrition at all levels.  The average tenure was less than 4 years.  Employees walked on eggshells, fearing they might be the next target for termination.  It was a running joke among employees that ‘bottom performers’ were those that left work at 5:00 PM.  Mediocre employees would leave at 6 o’clock and ‘high potentials’ worked to 7 or 8 in the evening.  The perception of how hard someone was working was equal to the actual output a person could produce.  Unsurprisingly, when Human Resources conducted an employee satisfaction survey, the results were very pitifully low.

 In an effort to boost employee morale, HR took several actions.  One of the actions was to introduce a company telecommuting policy that had been blessed by the CEO.  Now guess how many people took advantage of the new policy.

 You got it.  Zero.

 With such a vicious company culture, who would dare risk working from home?  Not being seen in the office could eventually position an employee for a pink slip.  Although this example is extreme, many other organizations face similar challenges.  A recent Booz Allen Hamilton and Partnership for Public Service study found that within the US federal government, managers were the largest single factor among barriers to telework adoption.  This is true for any organization, in the public or private sector.  Never underestimate the power of the organizational culture when it comes to changing behavior or increasing the adoption of a new initiative, such as telework.

Organizational culture can be summarized as the common perceptions held by the members of an organization.  It can be an enabler or barrier to change, but it is important to note that leaders at all levels drive the organization’s culture.  Here are a couple of best practices for creating a culture that supports telework:

  1. Set expectations & become metric focused.  Trust is the number one reason for resistance to telework.   Many managers simply don’t trust how employees will use their time outside  a traditional office.  Good management practices apply to both virtual and traditional work environments. Managers should set reasonable and realistic performance goals for employees, and measure the results or end products.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  It is almost a cliché, but you can never communicate too much.  Create awareness and understanding.  Ensure employees understand policies, rules, and where to go for information.  Allow enough time for the information to disseminate through the organization. Keep in mind that you will have to use different mediums to get the message across.
  3. Get manager buy-in.  As the case study above points out, telework initiatives will continue to fail if they are driven from HR or sold to the organization as an employee benefit.  Also, it’s not enough to have the top level of leadership in the organization pushing for new work arrangements.  The middle layer of management that drives and executes action needs to buy into telework or else the chance of success is relatively small.  Create the value proposition for managers.  Ensure they have the opportunity to voice concerns or receive training to adapt to the new environment.  Recognize and reward the early adopters to increase momentum. 
  4. Conduct a pilot.  There often is no need to go all-in at once.  Pilots have proven very effective with organizations such as the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO).  You can start with a subset of employees or perhaps starting off working from home 1 or 2 days a week before ramping up.  By ensuring the success of the first teleworkers within the organization, momentum is created and transferred to other groups. 
  5. Assess, coach & train.  In the initial stages of any new program or initiative, people will be pushed out of their comfort zones.  Periodically assess how the initiative is performing compared to established targets initially set by management.  Provide impromptu coaching for managers or employees that are struggling, or consider formal training.  For example, the PTO prepared patent examiners to work remotely by putting them through a two-week training course.  For practice, the PTO set up a training lab that featured the exact equipment employees would use at home.  Additionally, the course included simulations of tech problems to train employees on how to troubleshoot minor issues themselves without having to contact the organization’s help desk.

Someone once told me that “constant pressure applied over time can move mountains.”  The same can be said about creating an organizational culture.  It’s not easy, but leaders at all levels can contribute to building a culture that supports telework.

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