Home Improvement?

Working from home can drive employee engagement and performance, but companies first must provide telecommuting training and reinforcement.

Ayear ago, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer ignited a firestorm of controversy when she eliminated the company’s telecommuting option. Best Buy and Hewlett Packard soon followed suit with their flexible work programs. While many employees feared this was the beginning of the end of flexible work arrangements, 89 percent of respondents to a PGi survey of 933 respondents reported their employer’s telecommuting policy did not change during the last year. In other research, almost all 556 full-time employees (97 percent) surveyed reported having some form of work-life flexibility in 2013, according to a report from the Flex+Strategy Group | Work+Life Fit, Inc. (FSG/WLF).

That said, despite the availability of workplace flexibility, more than 4 in 10 full-time employees surveyed reported their employer’s commitment to worklife flexibility may have waned in the last year, according to the FSG/WLF research. That is evidenced by the fact that a majority (57 percent) of employees did not receive training or guidance on how to manage work-life flexibility.

“We can’t expect employees to effectively manage and leverage work-life flexibility when most receive no guidance or training. It’s not enough to just offer the option or provide a laptop,” notes Cali Yost, CEO and founder, FSG/ WLF, who believes a telework policy is just one piece of a broader day-to-day and formal work flexibility strategy and culture change. “A strategy to maximize workplace flexibility should be as important to a business as a strategy to develop new products or identify new markets.”

That means identifying how workplace flexibility can engage employees, implementing best practices for motivating telecommuters, providing training to both in- and out-of-office workers and their managers, and clearly communicating any policy changes and the reasons behind them.

Yes, Yost believes. “Flexibility increases employee engagement and motivation because it gives good performers the ability to fit work and life together in a way that allows them to be their best. However, the combination of flexibility in how, when, and where work is done that is most motivating will depend upon the person and the job.”

Adds Rose Stanley, Total Rewards Practice leader for WorldatWork, “Telecommuting often has a positive effect on engagement when it’s the right worker: The ideal teleworker is self-motivated, works well on his or her own, has clear direction and a supportive supervisor/manager, and all the things needed to complete the job are readily available in an alternative location. These are all the things that make a conducive work environment to help the worker do his or her job away from the traditional office.”

The “culture of flexibility” within an organization can give a worker the additional boost of knowing that his or her organization not only offers this form of flexibility, but supports it, Stanley says, and that can be an important distinguisher. “Employees want to know they can have flexibility if they need it—and sometimes when they want it. Employers want the job done, and if they can have an engaged employee doing that job, they feel they’re getting superior results,” she notes. “But not every job, person, department, or company is right for telework. Most employers and employees like the idea of telework, but, in reality, it may not be an appropriate fit, and fit is critical to telework success for both the employer and the employee.”

Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., founder of workplace consultancy Aubrey Daniels International, has a slightly different take than Stanley and Yost. “The fact that employees work at home or in the office has little to do with engagement,” he believes. “It is the management systems and management behaviors that determine engagement. If an employee wants to work at home, and has earned that privilege, engagement already should be at a high level for that particular employee or he or she will do no more at home than in the office. In fact, if the privilege is not earned, the employee will do less.”

Dr. Daniels believes the privilege of working at home should be earned. “If a poorly performing employee complains he would work better at home because he won’t be interrupted as he is in the office, don’t be surprised if he is more of a problem at home. Use the privilege as positive reinforcement for good work in the office, but keep in mind that some employees would rather work in the office than at home.”

In addition, Dr. Daniels says, feedback and reinforcement must be used effectively to engage employees. “Working remotely does present some obstacles for delivering feedback and reinforcement, but they can be provided when you understand behavior.”

While it may seem difficult to motivate employees who are not physically in the office and interacting in person with co-workers, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In addition to giving telecommuters challenging, meaningful work and recognition for a job well done, Yost says the three best tactics to engage and motivate telecommuters are:

  1. Plan periodic on-site meetings where they can interact in-person with the rest of the team.
  2. Incorporate video-based communication tools into the ways team members interact with each other.
  3. Loop them into important, ad-hoc meetings and calls as often as possible.

Stanley notes that employees who work more often in a telecommuting arrangement risk the possibility of estrangement and lack of focus. “Dedicated and regular communication between employee and manager on an ongoing basis is crucial,” she says. “And it’s not just up to the employer to set up opportunities to connect; the telecommuter bears part of the responsibility to stay connected also. It’s always wise to bring telecommuters in every few months to reconnect with co-workers and the organizational culture and provide them with face-time with co-workers. Getting them involved in cross-functional teams virtually can help build relationships, as well.”

Dr. Daniels points to his three best practices to engage and motivate all employees—both in and out of office: reinforcement, reinforcement, and reinforcement. “This is not a facetious answer,” he stresses. “Employees at home think those in the office are treated better than the telecommuting employees. Those in the office think the telecommuting employees have it better. These perceptions come from the fact that neither group feels it gets enough positive reinforcement.”

At Aubrey Daniels International, many employees work from home. “These employees understand the expectations for them and their work,” Dr. Daniels says. “Those who manage them, as well as those who work with them, rely on the telecommuting employees to perform just as they would if they were in an office. In addition, for those who don’t telecommute, there is an office policy allowing them flexibility to adjust their schedules when things come up. Whether it’s leaving the office for a few hours to attend to a personal need or working from home when a family matter arises, we treat our employees with the respect they deserve. In return, our employees perform at their best, always.”

When training telecommuters (and any worker with any type of work flexibility) on working from home, Yost believes the emphasis should be on three key objectives:

  1. How do you use work flexibility to deliberately and intentionally fit work and the other parts of your life together to be your best on and off the job, day-to-day, and at major life transitions (e.g., having a baby, caring for an aging relative, etc.)?
  2. What are the expectations, or organizational “rules of the road,” for flexible work success related to responsiveness, customer service, team collaboration, communication, and compensation/benefits?
  3. How do you use the available technology effectively?

Yost recommends using a combination of live, in-person or Web-based training sessions to introduce skills and tools and to answer questions, then reinforcing those skills and tools with as-needed, on-demand, learner directed e-learning.

“We see more success in organizations that train managers, telecommuters, and co-workers on some aspect of the teleworking policy, organizational culture, and senior management’s views on this way of working,” adds Stanley. “The goal is to make this new way of working as seamless as possible, and everyone needs to know how to communicate easily and effectively with one another.”

Follow-up should be reinforced by and even observed through that “seamless” viewpoint, Stanley says. “You’ll know when it’s not working, and the training and continual use of such things helps maintain a smooth working environment.”

As time goes by and business needs change, organizations will need to tweak, revamp, or, in some cases, eliminate their workplace flexibility policies. If done right, that should not provoke a critical backlash like Yahoo! experienced.

“In our research, 68 percent of full-time U.S. workers said that without work-life flexibility, employee loyalty and morale are affected,” Yost says. “That is why companies need to first determine if they can fix or improve an under performing flexibility strategy before completely rescinding it. Sometimes policies and procedures need to be improved, but think twice before you throw the flexibility baby out with the bath water. Unfortunately, more organizations don’t know how to do that. It’s easier to say, “Forget it.”

When it comes to changing any type of flexible workplace strategy, honesty is always the best policy, says Stanley. “Communicating the reason for the change and helping employees understand why the business now is going this new route is key. Also, if a company has decided to eliminate a telework program, it should consider whether or not there are there other forms of flexibility employees may be able to utilize in specific situations to still balance work-life responsibilities.”

Dr. Daniels recommends inviting employees to contribute to the details of the new policy. “Ask questions about what worked and didn’t work with the old policy, and what employees think they need to work effectively,” he says.

Yost agrees. She advocates involving as many people from as many levels and areas in the development process as possible. “If a particular group already supports and allows telecommuting, learn more about the underlying business case, what the roles and responsibilities of the manager and employees are,” she says. “Then take what you learn and use that as the basis of the telework process and policy, or ‘rules of the road,’ that you then will pilot and scale.”

Yost says the biggest mistake employers make is writing a top-down, one-size-fits-all telework policy, handing people a laptop, and essentially saying, “Good luck.” Utilization is limited, Yost says, “as managers are leery and roles and responsibilities for effective implementation are unclear. That’s a recipe for trouble.”

Clarity and Collaboration in Flexibility Training

By Shani Magosky, Vitesse Consulting, LLC

While flexwork has become more commonplace, the training of managers and employees for success remains rare. According to WorldatWork’s October 2013 Survey on Workplace Flexibility:

  • 88 percent do not train employees to be successful with flexible work arrangements.
  • 83 percent do not provide training to managers of employees using flexibility programs.

Few strategic initiatives are supported by such a low level of training commitment. We’d never consider asking someone to operate a complex new machine or sell an intricate new product without appropriate training, so why do we direct people to work from home without sufficient training to ensure success?

As a flexible workplace consultant who earned her stripes managing a highly distributed team from 2006 to 2011, I didn’t have a “how-to” book on leading a virtual staff, and no one trained me on the subject. While thought leadership on the topic has become more prolific since then, there’s still no silver bullet—managing people is challenging whether it’s in person or thousands of miles away.

Having said that, I created “The 15 C’s for Success for the Flexible Workplace” based upon what I learned to help other leaders navigate the complex waters of remote people management. The first five C’s are strategic and the other 10 involve implementation.

To heighten awareness of and encourage actions to correct the training gap, I’ll focus on two of the tactical C’s: Collaboration and Clarity. From a training and development perspective, we need to see:

  • Practical, hands-on training on the cadre of tools selected to foster collaboration, encourage knowledge sharing, and enhance productivity: People are too busy and overwhelmed for “Field of Dreams 2014,” i.e., if you build it, they will NOT necessarily come. We’ve seen too many companies squander their investment in potentially game-changing apps such as Yammer, Lync, Asana, or Basecamp because they launched without proper training, support, and context.
  • Training for managers on how to coach employees to greater performance: I’m talking about the kind of coaching that involves regularly engaging in collaborative, solutions-oriented dialogue with your people instead of simply directing them what to do at every turn. Nothing engages and motivates employees—in the flesh or virtual ones—more than empowering them to find their own solutions and rise to bigger challenges.
  • Clarity across all levels of the organization about the flexwork program: Clear communication and old-school standard operating procedures training are key in order to avoid inconsistencies, confusion, and, ultimately, widespread dissatisfaction.
  • Clarity around duties, deadlines, consequences of underperformance, and progress-reporting mechanisms: Why do I characterize this as an area for Learning & Development? Because it’s a competency that managers and individual contributors alike frequently lack. We are all in such a hurry to get to the proverbial destination that we rarely slow down to communicate and receive training about landmarks to look out for along the way. It’s impossible to be accountable or to hold others accountable if the targets aren’t clearly defined at the outset.

As Ben Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”


Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.