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Doing the Office Work Without the Office

The world of work has changed. In a matter of approximately a decade, we've seen a dramatic shift in the definition of "office work" and of the "office" -- and, most important, the severing of the historic link between the two. As that separation continues -- enabled by technology, lifestyle, economic, and values shifts -- the implications for managers and business owners explode.

© 1997, by Gil E. Gordon

Life used to be so much simpler.

There was a place called "the office" and there was an activity called "office work," and the former was where we did the latter. Except for the occasional business trip, everyone came to the office in the morning and stayed there most of the day. While some people dutifully toted a briefcase home, it was as often as not filled with work that wasn't urgent and was only somewhat likely to be done at home at night.

When we left the office, we left the office work behind. The commute home, as onerous as it might have been, was a buffer zone between what we did for a living and what we did in the rest of our lives. For the most part, the term "9-to-5" wasn't only a part of the language; it described when we worked and, by extension, where we worked.

We all had our own offices or cubicles with our names on them, the family photos on the desk, and many other personal items that marked out our turf as being distinctly -- and exclusively -- our own.

We were really "we" -- everyone was a regular, full-time, permanent employee (yes, Virginia, we used to call people "permanent employees"). Sure, there were the temps in the office, plus the occasional consultant or contractor brought in for a special project -- but otherwise, it was all one big, happy, fully-employed, fully-benefited group.

If someone phoned us while we were out, a trusted secretary wrote down the message on a little pink slip with the heading "While You Were Out" and then handed us a stack of those slips when we returned. Should someone happen to call after we'd left the office, the phone would just -- ring, unanswered.

"Mail" was something on paper, and it was delivered by the kids (which they normally were) from the mail room. On the relatively rare occasions when we had to contact someone overseas, we'd rely on Telex messages, which generally had to be sent by a special Telex machine operator using a mysterious process and elaborate equipment. Later, facsimile machines started to pop up, but they too were rationed, restricted, and not for the Great Unwashed to use.

The closest we came to mobile phone was a pay phone on the corner or in a hotel lobby. Using one required a pocketful of coins or a collect call; "credit cards" were for shopping at a store, not for making phone calls.

And, computers were big, enclosed in sterile-appearing glass rooms, and presided over by an elite caste. When their stranglehold on computing power began to break down in the late 70's and early 80's, some of us got our initiation into the world of personal computers (personal computers?) with an amazing program called VisiCalc.

If the preceding makes you nostalgic for "the good old days" (which weren't always that "good" and certainly weren't that "old"), you can put your memories in the attic and come back to reality. Like it or not, those images of the office as we knew it have disappeared forever -- not unlike the final version of that big report you were writing and forgot to save to disk before the power surge.

Wake Up And Smell The Latte

The world of work has changed. In a matter of approximately a decade, we've seen a dramatic shift in the definition of "office work" and of the "office" -- and, most important, the severing of the historic link between the two. As that separation continues -- enabled by technology, lifestyle, economic, and values shifts -- the implications for managers and business owners explode.

Just How "Office-less" Will The Office Be?

If the media storm about telecommuting and the virtual office makes you think that all your employees will be working at home in pajamas, or on a beach somewhere, you can relax. The office building as we know it will be with us for a long time, though it is changing dramatically. Neither the skyscrapers in our central business districts nor the smaller offices tucked away on back roads are going to empty out, but they will change (for many people) from being the place to work to being a place to work.

Today there are approximately 8-9 million corporate telecommuters, defined as employees who would normally be in an office but who instead work at least one day a week at home or elsewhere off-site. That number represents annual growth of about 15% for the last five years -- but is still considerably less than 10% of the entire workforce.

Similarly, if you dissect all the virtual-office and "road warrior" hype, you'll realize that sales reps, service reps, installers, and an army of other employees have been working away from the office for decades. The main difference today -- and it's not insignificant -- is that they are using much more technology, and are much more untethered from the office.

The bottom line? Many more workers will be working in many different locations, using much more sophisticated technology. With few exceptions, the location of any company's workforce will more likely resemble a hub-and-spoke model (with the central office remaining the hub) than it will an infinitely and more widely-dispersed scattering of virtual-office workers.

So, the good news is that the office (and all its problems and challenges) will still exist; the bad news (and it's not all bad) is that many of the typical managerial roles (and related Human Resources functions) such as policy development, selection, orientation, training, compensation, employee relations, and organization planning will undergo some major transformation to cope with this workforce-on-the-go.

Let's see what's in store for each of those seven functions...

1. Policy Development: "If you slip in the bathtub...."

Most forms of telecommuting and mobile work assume that the same employee is doing basically the same job under the same general supervision. The most important change is in the location of the work, not the work itself. Thus, you don't need to write a brand-new policy manual just to cover telecommuters.

However, you do need some kind of policy and/or a "telecommuter's agreement" that spell out what's different about work done away from the office. For example:

  • Equipment provided by the company for use at home remains the property of the company and must be returned in case of separation or termination;
  • Upon request, telecommuters must come into the office for meetings or other purposes -- and the manager has the right to end the telecommuting arrangement if the employee's work falls below acceptable levels;
  • Telecommuting is a job assignment, not a benefit or entitlement. No one is guaranteed the ability to become or continue working as a telecommuter.

These and other remote-work-specific policies can and should be crafted quite quickly and explicitly, so everyone knows the rules of the game. One of the biggest potential problems with telecommuting occurs when line managers -- or HR departments -- simply assume that good faith and good intentions will immunize everyone against future misunderstandings and problems. Would that it were so....

2. Selection: Entrepreneurs, Not Followers

There are two selection considerations for office-less office work:

  • telecommuters who are based in the office but work at home one to three days a week on average; and
  • virtual office workers (such as sales reps) who spend most of their time with customers and rarely work in company offices.

The former are almost always chosen from among the current in-office staff, while the latter are generally (and increasingly) selected into these roles from their initial hire.

The selection process for the internal telecommuters should mirror that of a good internal job-posting system. It begins with an announcement of the telecommuting option being available for certain jobs, and for employees who meet certain minimum criteria (e.g., at least one year with the company, at least three months in the current position, last two appraisals "above average" or better).

Employees who meet those criteria and are interested in (and informed about) the pros and cons of telecommuting can apply and then be screened and selected. This screening should be based on demonstrated telecommuting-relevant skills, e.g., self-motivation, ability to consistently meet deadlines, good independent problem-solving skills.

The key to finding good remote workers of any kind is to look for people who can work together without being together, and who can work alone without being starved for ongoing feedback and direction from the manager.

How do you acclimate and orient a new hire when there's no "there" there?

When the office was the focal point of all office work, orientation was a relatively easy process -- we've all sat through (and perhaps conducted) the typical first-day "Welcome to the Company" session, followed by the usual series of forms, ID photos, and all the rest.

More to the point, the traditional orientation process was a great way to immerse the new hire in the culture and "feel" of the organization. Those first few days and weeks are when we learn about our jobs, our co-workers, the informal norms, and so on. Take that central-office touchstone out of the orientation process and you're left with the challenge of conveying that information, and more, in different ways.

This is one example of how appropriate technology can pay off. Consider, for example, how you might use a well-designed intranet or video to achieve some of that acclimation. These or similar options certainly are not a complete replacement for a more personal orientation -- but they will go a long way in helping a new hire to get to know the organization.

4. Training: Kids, Cables, Schedules, Tables

There's nothing inherently difficult about working at a distance -- or managing those who do. But there's no need for those involved to go through trial-and-error learning when a modest amount of training can be very helpful. This training is needed so telecommuters and other remote workers don't waste a lot of time or become frustrated.

Among the topics to be covered for the employees are:

  • How and where to set up an office in the home
  • Safety and ergonomics considerations
  • Learning to work in a more independent, self-motivated manner
  • Dealing with the potential demands of family, friends and neighbors

Managers of remote workers will benefit from briefing about topics such as:

  • How to manage results, not activity
  • Setting clear performance expectations and giving ongoing feedback
  • Making sure there is good communication among team members
  • Acting as a buffer or intermediary between the remote workers and others

If that list of topics for managers makes you wonder how remote management is different from what we normally expect managers to do, pat yourself on the back. That's exactly why the process of managing remote workers isn't necessarily different or difficult. One of the hidden benefits of telecommuting programs is to give you an opportunity to do some thinly-disguised refresher training on "Management 101" topics. This not only helps with the management of remote staff, but also helps with supervision of in-office staff.

5. Compensation: Equal Pay for Equal Work -- And A Bonus?

It's very tempting to look at telecommuting and see it as a cash cow. The logic is as follows: if an employee is working at home for two or three days a week, that person is spending less on commuting costs, meals, and the purchase and care of the office wardrobe. A cut in pay to the tune of 10% won't be felt, because the net after expenses will be the same as when the person got 100% of the salary but had all those in-the-office-related expenses.

This is perhaps the worst kind of thinking imaginable, for two reasons.

First, it puts employers back into an unequal-pay-for-equal-work situation that most of them have finally escaped. Second, and more important, it creates a two-tier pay plan and a group of second-class citizens.

There is, however, an interesting opportunity for another -- and better -- kind of disparate treatment. The employer is already ahead of the game with the kind of savings in office space costs that are possible, and the extra work output typically seen from telecommuters is yet another payoff -- so there should be plenty of gains to be shared. This could provide a true test of enlightened bonus plans for professional-level workers -- something that's often suggested but rarely done.

One final compensation-related issue: the other cash cow that grazes in the minds of short-sighted managers is the possibility of converting telecommuters from employee to independent contractor status. This is a huge legal minefield. A change in work location alone isn't enough to justify the independent contractor designation, and there are serious financial liabilities when this status is used incorrectly.

6. Employee Relations: Working Together Without Being Together

We are all products of the agricultural and industrial eras, in which there was no choice but to bring all the workers to the workplace. Those earlier eras created a series of norms and assumptions about how people work together, and how support services had to be provided to them.

We have, for the most part, left the fields and the factories behind, and with that progress comes the need to rethink the assumptions about what "working together" really means. This is especially challenging with today's emphasis on team-based organizations. On the surface, it might seem that office-less office work is antitethical to teamwork, but nothing could be further from the truth.

You'll need to determine the right mix of time spent physically together with time spent working together, but from a distance. For example, there are some meetings that definitely have to occur in traditional form, with a group of people sitting around a conference table. But there are many others that can, and do, occur via audio conference call, videoconference, or even computer-based conferencing. These are not "Star Wars" kinds of applications; these remote meetings happen every day all around the world.

7. Organization Planning: Keeping Your "Bench Strength" In Place

Finally, let's step back from these operational issues and consider the implications of telecommuting and other forms of remote work for longer-term staffing and succession planning.

One of the most pervasive myths about telecommuting is that it's a career-killer. If you're "out of sight" as a telecommuter, you'll be "out of mind" when the powers that be consider candidates for promotion or assignment to a desirable new job. This belief is one reason why some employees who would otherwise make excellent telecommuters (and who would enjoy doing so) shy away from the option. They feel that they'll be stifling their own progress if they don't have a chance to rub elbows with the VP in the cafeteria line, or otherwise remain fully visible.

While there hasn't been any research to validate this assumption, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Managers in well-run telecommuting programs will quickly say that their telecommuters and remote workers are more promotable than their in-office peers. The process of working remotely forces the employee to be more independent, make more decisions, solve more problems, and otherwise develop and use the skills and traits valued in positions of higher responsibility.

The Simple Life vs. The Better Life

There's no doubt that the various forms of office-less office work add to the burden of an already-overloaded manager. Life probably was simpler when everyone came into the office every day, and we didn't have "voice mail jail" and hard drive crashes to contend with.

Obviously, organizational life has changed, and it has been for the better. These forms of mobility mean better customer service, more flexibility for the employees, less wasted time sitting in rush-hour traffic jams, and improved operating efficiencies for employers.

From the perspective of the manager or business owner, telecommuting is one of the most powerful tools in your toolkit for attracting, retaining, and getting the best out of your people. The technology is ready, the employees are ready, and the knowledge about how to make telecommuting work is widely available. It's time to start thinking about moving some of your office work beyond the four walls of your building.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Employment Relations Today, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Gil Gordon is a world-reknown expert on telecommuting issues, whose site is a one-stop service for employers, vendors, researchers, policy-makers and others interested in the telecommuting field. If you are interested in spearheading a telecommuting program at your present company, visit Gil's site today!

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