Telecommuting’s Secret…It Can Work!

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“Wait, so don’t you live in California now?” It’s a question I’m asked weekly since our move last month.

“Yes, in beautiful Sonoma County!” I respond with a gleem in my eye and a skip in my step.

I know what’s coming next.  The follow-up question is predictable.

“But aren’t you leading a program in Wisconsin?”

It’s a strange question, I find, but perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the business world myself, or perhaps it’s because I have taught global business courses.  The question’s peculiar, though, because highlights two key issues.

First, the question evidences a lack of awareness of how the business world has evolved and truly works.  Let’s set global businesses aside, instead focusing on the shrinking number of companies that operate solely within the United States.  Even most medium-sized and large organizations have operating facilities, supply chains, and customers outside of the geographic region in which their headquarters sits.  How do people assume executives interact with regional or state sales teams?  How do they maintain accountability over a dispersed team?

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Second, the confusion prefaces an often subconscious paradigm that plagues many organizations, a paradigm grounded in MacGregor’s Theory X.  This belief is that workers are essentially lazy and in need of constant supervision and oversight, lest they just sit around and goof off, milking their roles for a paycheck while seeking to do as little work as possible.  Put another way, it’s the “butts in seats” prejudice that requires seeing someone actively “at work” to believe they are doing anything. (We’ve all had managers like that!)

In short, what I’m highlighting here is perhaps naiveté about how much the working world has changed and evolved since the advent of the internet.  Workforces in most of the top organizations are spread out throughout the country and the world.  Projects are managed and production occurs through “the cloud.” And communication channels we frequently utilize in our personal lives (email, social media, Skype, FaceTime, etc.) have real-world business applications that are driving globalization worldwide.

And yet, even knowing this, the adoption of these technological benefits are often ignored by the very organizations that could most easily benefit from them.  There is still a need to shift from a “butts in seat” to a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) accountability system in many organizations.  But change comes slow in some circles.  Skeptics abound, and we need to understand that and coach these individuals around the fears they have around this notion.  Thankfully, when as business and organizational psychology faculty and consultants we embrace a ROWE approach to our team-work and leadership, we begin to help propagate an acceptance that will only benefit our students and business clients.  Through modeling, we show them what many of the leading organizations already know…remote working can work as well (and in many cases more efficiently) than traditional work models.

Shift-Your-Thinking22But what does ROWE entail?  Two words….Trust and Accountability.  Trust that ones outside of your field of vision will do what they should be doing.  And holding them accountable for producing high quality work (be those reports, research, teaching, or leading a team).  If the qualities of one’s work suffers, trust is lost, and then it’s okay to replace that individual with someone who you can trust and hold accountable.  I know, I know….It sounds a lot like the very same process you’d use with a person right there in the office, right? (Amazing things…trust and accountability!

The academic world of higher education is exceptionally suited for telecommuting, working remotely, or whatever new buzzword is being used this week to describe the more than 37% of the American workforce that, according to Gallup’s 2015 research.  After all, as a professor, I daily interact with, coach, and mentor students via email, phone, and video conference (Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts are my personal go-to tools).  Even when I was on campus, it was rare to see most faculty in their offices at the same times that I was there.  So, whether from California, China, Germany, or Madison, WI, over the past half-decade, an increasing amount of my work has been done virtually, i.e., not face-to-face with colleagues, students, and business partners.

In short, remote work has become the norm in the most successful organization.  But it’s not yet ubiquitous in perception or practice.  With time those perceptions will shift.  But so long as I continue to field these questions, it’s clear how many may not yet realize how normal and accepted (and potential efficient) telecommuting has become.

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