Working from home - or from a location away from the office - is part of the shift towards employment flexibility. But managing from a distance is posing a new set of problems for the office-bound middle manager.
British rail strikes and last year's Californian earthquake have one thing in common - both events created an instant boom in the number of people teleworking because of disrupted transport systems. Natural or man-made disasters aside, an increasing number of company employees across all business sectors are starting to work from home - or a location remote from the central office - on a short-or long-term basis. How to manage this new brand of worker is, according to recent surveys, proving to be a problem for the traditional office-bound manager.
Teleworking is catching on in the UK. Noel Hodson, director of telework research firm SW 2000, estimates that 4% of the UK's 22 million workers could be described as teleworkers. The Institute of Management confirms that 400,000 people could be classed as teleworking for major organisations - a figure which does not include self-employed teleworkers, nor mobile field staff who are rapidly becoming fully-fledged teleworkers with no office base or depot to return to. British Telecom, which favours a broader definition of teleworking, suggests that 37% of British companies and up to 2.5 million employees are involved in this new working practice.
It is a phenomenon that is growing throughout Europe. Bonn-based consultants Empirica Communications suggest that the UK has 46% of an estimated 1.2 million European teleworkers (using a narrower definition of telework than BT's). Moreover, the European Union is keen to promote teleworking and has a target of 10 million teleworkers by the year 2000.
Teleworking, the EU believes, could counter the decline in permanent jobs within companies and rejuvenate rural economies through the establishment of professional teleworkers and telecentres. This encouragement is part of its drive to promote flexible working practices and the greater use of the emerging information society which, it believes, will bring quicker response times and further enhance trading possibilities.
One stumbling block, however, is the apparent ignorance of some top managers to the prevalence of teleworking, even within their own organisations. Hodson quotes the example of two personnel managers from a major US bank who told him there were no teleworkers in his company and no formal policy. Hodson was later informed by the bank's IT manager that he supported 1,000 people a day working from home, with a different group being 'out' each day.
American Express's UK operation may be similarly in the dark. While its publicly-discussed, successful teleworking initiatives in the US raised revenue per employee in its travel services group by $30,000 a year, the UK offices of the company could only say that teleworking was 'under consideration' in the US and that no formal policy exists.
Companies, it appears, are not yet comfortable with their teleworkers. Research suggests that middle managers perceive teleworkers as a problem for the company and difficult to manage. For their part, potential or existing teleworkers also have concerns, particularly over career prospects and contractual employment details. For teleworking to take off in the way the EU hopes, it is these managerial rather than technological difficulties which must be resolved.
Garth Shephard, author of a report, The New Age of Teleworking, believes that to manage teleworkers well the following key issues must be addressed: individual selection; an appropriate home workplace and support infrastructure (including the teleworker's family and travel services); preparation for change (including training); pay scales; equipment; financial planning and agreed levels of service quality.
Selection of teleworkers is clearly crucial as not all people or jobs are suited to this way of work. Employees who are accustomed to working alone for long periods and experienced staff who work with minimal support are the most obvious candidates. Appropriate home conditions are also vital as lack of space, conflict with family interests or an employee's need to keep home and work separate can cause problems. Teleworkers can usually do much of this kind of assessment themselves, often prompted by a questionnaire compiled by the employer. If necessary, a physical inspection can be arranged but most teleworkers view this as intrusive. Management is better to adopt a counselling role in this respect, says Shephard, but at the same they should be prepared to intervene if required.
Provision of the appropriate standard of technology and discussion of training needs with the teleworker is of paramount importance. Management is also responsible for ensuring that the telework office space conforms to all relevant health and safety regulations, including the safe use of computer equipment. Companies accredited under BS5750 or the ISO 90001 standard, must also ensure that its teleworkers' practices meet those benchmarks.
Managing teleworkers requires traditional office techniques to be revised. As 'walking the job' is no longer possible, managerial methods must shift away from direct observation and performance measurement based on activity, towards management by more formal contact, and assessment on the quantity and quality of output rather than any time-based measure. Where meetings and information-sharing are often ad hoc in an office environment, such events have to be formally 'pencilled in' for teleworkers. Contact between managers and teleworkers in any form, from a face-to-face meeting to a phone conversation, has to adhere to stricter controls than is necessary for regular employees.
Teleworkers can suffer feelings of isolation and concern that, by removing themselves from the political hurly-burly of the office, they are effectively scuppering their chances to progress within the organisation. Both concerns can be addressed through regular meetings and a larger number of work-based social events. Social activity in an office environment often takes place informally and irregularly and events such as meals out, getting together for a drink or meeting for a day out need to be more formally scheduled to include teleworkers. Managers must also consider remuneration with care to ensure that it progresses as it would if the job was still office based.
Ron Penny, British Telecom's teleworking marketing manager, does not, however, believe that extra skills are required for managing teleworkers. The key is to apply basic office management techniques and abandon the shortcuts which are possible when everyone is located in the same place. Feedback from managers to teleworkers is vital, says Penny, as well as a clear definition of roles and responsibilities. Face-to-face meetings, team events and family days help to bridge the potential gap between BT's teleworkers and the centre. BT has a philosophy of starting its teleworking schemes small.
'Starting off with a pilot teleworking scheme, during which all doubts should be addressed and consensus reached, is essential,' says Penny. 'Otherwise a festering, resentful attitude might develop among staff and this attitude could prove hard to change.'
BT initiated teleworking two years ago with an experimental scheme to run directory enquiry services through teleworkers in Scotland. Based around Inverness, BT teleworkers provide directory assistance to many parts of the UK.
The success of the Scottish scheme has encouraged BT to pursue a more formal teleworking strategy. This includes a £120,000 trial for technical authors which has delivered £221,000 benefit after only one year and the creation of a group of home-based sales people within BT's Volume Business Sales unit located in Southampton.
The VBS unit, which takes business equipment orders on the 152 number, began its teleworking scheme in January. Twelve sales people out of a group of 25 are based entirely at home, says Margaret Birkett, inbound sales manager for BT. These sales staff are all part-timers, although they work in the same way as full-time office staff, linked via workstations and ISDN2 lines to the office mainframe.
Each morning Birkett gives her teleworkers a performance update to compare against their progress with other team members. This includes a breakdown of individual revenue tallies. To supplement this ongoing assessment, there are monthly team meetings in the office which all teleworkers attend. Social events are also organised which currently include a skittles evening.
This teleworking experiment, which, in effect, is only a six months' trial, is proving a success, says Birkett. Greater flexibility has been the greatest benefit with home-based sales people often prepared to come on-line during busy periods, even when they are not meant to be 'working'.
Burger King - owned by GrandMet - is another company pleased to have trodden the teleworking trail. Following the relocation of its offices to Uxbridge, the fast-food chain offered 30 of its highly mobile district and franchise managers and operations trainers the opportunity to work from home rather than from a corporate site. The massive reduction in staff travelling time has already endeared the scheme to the new teleworkers. Kathryn Whittingham, Burger King's European human resources director, says that although there were some concerns and difficulties at the beginning, more jobs could be put out to teleworking in future.
The managerial challenge, she says, has been to get teleworkers up to scratch with technology, manage administration, handle communications, counter feelings of isolation and ensure that the home environment can support telework. Burger King, which has also implemented a teleworking policy in the rest of Europe and the US, has established a home workers network for teleworker social events, which can range from a drinks get-together to family days.
Research suggests that the challenge which teleworking poses for management is worth overcoming. Productivity gains from successful teleworking initiatives can be considerable. The productivity of teleworkers, according to time-based output measures used by SW 2000, can show gains of up to 45% when compared to that of office-based staff. Similar improvements have been found in the US, says Ellen Taylor, a vice president of software supplier Symantec.
The carrot of productivity gains, though enticing to management, may be insufficient to allay teleworkers' fears about its implication for career prospects or their role in the company. Ashley Dobbs, chairman of the Telecottage Association (see box) and a teleworker of 10 years' experience, believes the onus is now on management to ditch traditional attitudes towards its role and responsibilities, address the very real concerns of teleworkers and accept teleworking as an inevitable but positive part of the ongoing shift in working life away from established employment practices towards flexible working. Ignoring it is not an option.