“How ‘ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?”

This WWI-era song addressed a challenge rural areas faced after many American soldiers first experienced the attractions of big cities. As the prevalence of telework has increased during the COIVD-19 crisis, employers may soon face a similar challenge: How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em working in the office (after they’ve worked from home)?

Maybe they don’t have to, and maybe they shouldn’t.

Many organizations already allow employees to telework — including working from home — at least some of the time. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that on an average day, nearly one-quarter of employed people worked from home in 2018. The reasons are many and include:

    • Telework can help mitigate the impact of bad weather, bad traffic and, now, pandemics. It also may help your organization meet social distancing requirements.
    • Teleworkers tend to be more productive, in part as a result of facing fewer interruptions and being able to focus more on their core responsibilities.
    • Telework can help control real estate costs, since fewer employees in the office means companies need less office space. Efforts, such as IBM’s in the 1980s and 1990s, to go completely virtual are less common, but organizations can achieve similar advantages through the concepts of shared work spaces or hoteling in place of dedicated offices.
    • Many employees like to telework to avoid long commutes, better manage personal responsibilities, or work at the times and under the conditions in which they are more effective. As a result, organizations that support teleworking can be more competitive in hiring and see reduced turnover. They also can recruit from larger labor pools, since they need not be limited to candidates who live within commuting distance.

Some employers are less supportive of telework than others. Sometimes, this reluctance is warranted by the nature of the job. Certainly, there are jobs where being physically present is a must, such as work that involves construction, food production, or equipment repair or maintenance. Some service and care jobs also fall into this category, but advances in consumer analytics, telemedicine and other technologies are making telework feasible for at least portions of many fields. In addition, much knowledge work is amenable to telework, as evidenced by the fact that more highly educated workers and employees in management, professional and sales roles are most likely to telework.

Resistance to telework often is a function of personal biases on the part of organizational leaders or individual managers. For example, a friend’s wife is in a job where she used to telework. A new supervisor told her team that their jobs were not suited to telework, but when the virus hit, her employer required those employees to work from home. This scenario points to the obvious question: What will happen when things return to normal (whatever normal turns out to be). Attempts to keep employees “down on the farm” (requiring them to work in the office all the time) are likely to result in resistance, disengagement and turnover.

What can your organization do, now that the telework genie has been let out of the bottle, if you want to support telework in the COVID-19 era? The actions fall into three broad categories:

Set Policies and Expectations

First, determine which jobs and/or duties are suited to telework based on the nature of the work, not on individual biases or supervisor preferences. Then, decide which employees may and may not telework. You may, for example, exclude underperformers, especially if concerns about their performance center around conscientiousness, honesty or procrastination. Some organizations restrict new employees while allowing more experienced new hires to telework.

Finally, provide guidelines regarding when and how frequently employees may telework. If your organization is just starting a telework policy, it may make sense to limit remote work to one or two days per week.

Address Technology Needs

At a minimum, ensure that employees can reliably and securely work on company applications and documents (for example, via a virtual private network, or VPN). Keep employees from physically transporting company documents or files in order to telework.

Provide remote access to tools that facilitate communication, including email, instant messaging and teleconferencing applications. You may also need to provide access to advanced tools for facilitating collaboration, knowledge-sharing, online training or virtual teamwork.

Also give employees technology recommendations and requirements for teleworking, including for hardware, software and internet speed. Guidelines should also address data security (e.g., the use and storage of information on personal equipment and network security standards).

Provide Training and Support

Provide employees with a realistic view of the advantages and disadvantages of telework. For example, although telework can help employees better maintain a balance between work and family and personal life, some may find it difficult to “turn off” work when it is always in the next room. Others experience difficulties when family members don’t respect the fact that they are at work (telework is not a substitute for child care, for example).

Some remote employees, particularly full-time teleworkers, can feel detached and out of the loop because they miss out on the informal interactions by which co-workers connect and share information, such as going to lunch or attending after-work events. Furthermore, some employees find the lack of pre-workday and commute rituals and defined start and stop times liberating, while others find it disorienting — and are still in their pajamas, unshowered and having not eaten at the end of their workday.

Provide telework candidates with training (or at least guidelines) on:

    • Company policies and expectations.
    • How to determine when and how much to telework.
    • How to use telework technology.
    • How to work effectively from home.
    • How to address challenges associated with telework (e.g., separating work and personal life, maintaining visibility, and dealing with feelings of isolation).

For example, teleworkers with families often find it beneficial to work in a separate, quiet room and to clearly communicate that they should not be disturbed when working. Others adopt rituals to mark the start and end of their workday. There is training for teleworkers available on the market, though many organizations develop their own.

It’s also important to provide managers with training on how to supervise and support teleworkers, including broader teleworker topics as well as:

    • Expectations for supporting teleworkers.
    • How to establish agreed-upon ways of working (e.g., when and how often).
    • Monitoring and managing performance.
    • Maintaining team cohesion.
    • Ensuring that teleworkers remain engaged, involved and connected.

The latter topics are particularly important when managing employees who telework a large percentage of the time, though many of them also are valuable in any situation where a manager and employee work at different locations.

Finally, provide resources, hold events or adopt ways of working to provide social support and encourage network-building for teleworkers, especially if some telework frequently. These activities may include something as simple as designating periodic “meeting days” when all employees are in the office. Another simple way to help remote employees feel more connected is to establish the practice of turning on webcams for virtual meetings so attendees can see each other.

Onboarding for new remote employees could include requiring then to periodically visit the location(s) where their team members or other stakeholders are located, providing them with mentors, or helping them build their networks by facilitating introductions to employees throughout the organization. Similarly, teams could hold periodic off-site meetings that include team building, planning and problem-solving activities. Some organizations facilitate connections among remote workers by sponsoring “virtual picnics.” It can also be beneficial to create support groups for managers of teleworkers (who may also be teleworkers themselves).

A final piece of advice regarding creating a telework option in your organization: Be patient, and give employees some time to adjust. Don’t pull the plug just because there are glitches in the first few weeks. Research has shown that different employees adapt to teleworking at different rates, and the ones who initially take longer to adjust often show the most improvement in performance long term.