Leading development projects through text messages and skype?

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In the community and economic development field, regional and statewide organizations are commonplace. In North Carolina, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina is a statewide economic development agency with regional industry representatives in all corners of the state. The North Carolina Department of Commerce maintains offices throughout the state.  Smaller economic development organizations may broaden their reach by having some employees live closer to the location of projects and further from headquarters. Even here at the School of Government, some employees are granted the option to work from remote or home offices.

Having staff members dispersed across large geographic areas far from headquarters creates challenges for leaders, who must set a vision for the organization, incorporate location into work assignments, monitor work from afar, and ensure staff remain motivated. The culture and morale of the organization often depends on the communication and relationship that is established by leadership, but attempts to create positive work environments can be challenging in an era when work may not be done in the same physical office.  As flexible work schedules and telework become a new standard, leaders must consider how they will adapt.   

Flexible working arrangements are seen as a mechanism that can benefit both employees and employers by helping to meet staffing needs, enhancing family-friendly policies, and responding to financial and environmental issues- and is also a practice that many community development professionals opt for or use out of necessity because of the location of projects.  Over the last three decades, the use of technology to work outside of the traditional office has become increasingly prevalent.  Research from the Telework Research Network finds that telework grew across fields (for profit, nonprofit, and government) 102.1% between 2005 and 2014.  The number of local government workers who telework grew by 78.5 % between 2005 and 2014, and the number of state government workers increased by 130.9% in that same period (for the federal government, growth was 424.3%). Lister (2009) suggests that 20-30 million people work from home at least one day each week.

If you are not currently using telework it is likely something you have considered or employees have requested. The notion of flexible working arrangements is something that many employees are expecting to be standard practice within organizations they go to work at. Managing in this new work mode creates many opportunities as well as challenges.  Telework can create a positive outcomes for department and organizations they do not come without some challenges or concerns.

Challenges to telework can take many forms, including:

  • Issues related to employee isolation;
  • Decreased sense of camaraderie due to limited face time;
  • Employee productivity;
  • Questions of equity of eligibility for promotion;
  • Increased scheduling difficulty;
  • Questions of accountability;
  • Blurring of boundaries between work and non-work responsibilities;
  • Longer workdays;
  • Customer service complaints: and
  • Increased limitations on career advancement.

One of the factors that is been found in the research is relationships with supervisor is the critical moderating variable between the experience and the outcomes for individuals and departments.  Leaders need to think carefully about how they build these relationships when old practices of “bumping into each other in hall and touching base” may not be part of their everyday reality.

While conference calls and other practices can help, they lack the efficacy of face-to-face conversations.   A 2011 Merit System Protection Board survey found that significant percentages of managers reported negative impacts of telecommuting on communication (20%), teamwork (18%) and work relationships (15%).  Employees report their concerns that telework hinders teamwork and collaboration (41%) and interpersonal relations (31%) (MSPB, 2011).  A critical challenge is to have inclusive and consistent communication with those that are not physically present.

According to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the employees that make the best telecommuters are those that:

  • Are organized;
  • Have excellent time management skills;
  • Are self-motivated/self-starters;
  • Have strong written and verbal communication skills;
  • Work well with limited supervision;
  • Are self-disciplined;
  • Have strong performance records and job knowledge;
  • Have successfully completed their training phase;
  • Are comfortable using telecommuting equipment;
  • Are comfortable working alone;
  • Are resourceful when handling technology issues;
  • Are able to communicate effectively using mixed media such as phones, email, and video conferencing;
  • Are able to establish work life/home life boundaries; and
  • Have a supportive home environment free from household distractions.

The SHRM also provides a series of tips for managing telework programs, in terms of keeping telecommuters informed and involved.  They include the following:

  • Traditional modes of communication, which depend upon face-to-face interaction, need to be supplemented so telecommuters do not feel forgotten when they are off-site.
  • Providing special pre-/post-training and telecommuting orientation can help with the transition.
  • Assigning a more experienced telecommuter to serve as a “mentor” or “reality check”.
  • Including telecommuters in office celebrations, either by making arrangements for them to be on-site or through the use of technology (e.g., audio or video conferencing).

While it is a growing trend and technology continues to open up more options for working in alternative modes, the issue of telework for any organization, manager, and employee involves planning and considering a various set of issues and practices from the legal and technical to questions of work culture. For example, establishing a clear understanding of how often telecommuters will “check in” with the office, when and how telecommuters are expected in the office, and how often telecommuters should check their phone and email message can help keep both telecommuters and on-site employees informed, connected and involved.  Leading a department that allows alternative modes of work can be a challenge but also a leadership opportunity for those involved.

Willow Jacobson is a School of Government faculty member who focuses on employer-employee relations, human resource management, leadership development, and organizational change and development.

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