Telecommuting Pitfalls

September 30, 2008

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about telecommuting.  I’ve been writing about how important telecommuting is to  many Gen Y employees (and others) and how employers should try to be flexible in this area.  I still believe this to be true, but I’ve also been haunted by three stories that demonstrate the importance of face-to-face interaction, and sometimes just “being there.”

Casual Chats – Critical Impact

One of my roles at Microsoft many years ago was in the Product Support Services (PSS) area where I was responsible for assuring that IT was building the tools PSS needed.  My office was on the same floor as the Diane (name changed,) the PSS Vice President’s.  At least once a day we’d cross paths in the hall.  Our initial hallway chats were mostly about the weather and her recent relocation from Minneapolis. 

But, within a week, those brief conversations started to evolve.  Diane would ask me the status of a project or casually mention a meeting she was preparing for.  I would give Diane a heads up on a project that might run a little late, tell her about about a project that was going great, or ask a question about the direction a critical decision was headed. I began to start my day by creating a brief “hallway chat” list of topics I wanted to discuss with Diane or things I thought she should know.  Sure we also participated in more formal meetings, generally with others in attendance, but these casual chats helped both of us “check in” and gave us the opportunity to discuss things that were important, but not important enough to call a meeting for.

I didn’t realize how important those casual chats were until there was a broader reorganization and my group relocated to a different floor.  Since we no longer crossed paths on a daily basis, those casual chat opportunities were lost.  I realized how much I missed them when I got caught flat footed in a meeting because I wasn’t current on (or told about) a topic we previously would have touched base on in a hallway discussion.  To make a long story short (or shorter <sigh>) I tried several ways to stay in that casual loop, but none of them worked as well as those hallway discussions.  Due to this and several other events, the IT group and my effectiveness flailed, Diane’s frustration grew, and I eventually moved to another job within the company.  Those unscheduled chats had had a huge impact on my ability to do my job successfully.  I missed them and my performance suffered.

Out of “Site” – Do just what’s asked

One of my career-launcher clients and I were talking about his summer internship.  He liked the work and the people, but, one of things he appreciated most was the flexibility.

 Our conversation went something like this.

“I can work whenever and wherever I want as long as I get the job done,” he told me. 

“Are you doing good work?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Are you doing great work?” I asked.

“It’s not that kind of work.” he replied.  “They’re asking me to fix things.  It’s binary.  They’re either fixed or they’re not.  There’s no opportunity for great.  I’ve fixed everything they’ve asked me to fix and I do it in far less time than they estimate.”

“What do you do with the extra time?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied

“Do you tell them that it took less time than expected and ask for other projects?” I asked.

He looked at me like I had two heads and replied “No” with a <duh> tone of voice.

“So, in the time they’re paying you for, you could do more for them.  You could also be learning more.  Right?” I asked

No response.

“If you were on site for your full hourly commitment, do you think you’d get more work done for them?” I asked.

“Probably,” he replied.

“So, you could be great by asking for more than they expect of you, couldn’t you?” I asked.

“I guess so” he said sheepishly.

This is a wonderful, hardworking student and it never crossed his mind that he should think about further exceeding expectations. To him, nailing every project request by the deadline was exceeding expectations, and perhaps it was.  But I’m struck by how much more both he and his employer could have gotten out of this working relationship.

Advice to Interns – See the Bigger Picture

When I ran the IS Internship Program at the University of Washington, I required a weekly status reports from each intern.  By week three it was clear that they were generally doing well and were very focused on the tasks they were assigned.  That was when my advice pointed them to look at the bigger picture.  Sure they were hired to do a job, but mostly they were hired so their employers could determine whether this intern would be a longer term fit for the company.  Sure the intern wanted job experience, but a great internship provides a richer look at the company, soft skills growth, and a networking jumpstart.  Increasing their skill set is just the beginning.

I advised them to use their time with the company to its fullest; request to sit in on planning sessions, schedule a lunch or coffee chat with an influencial person at the company, offer to help out in big and small ways, recommend changes to processes that could use improvements with an offer to be part of the solution.  That not only gets an intern noticed, but provides a richer, more complete intern experience than simply doing a task and learning a new skill.  Those things are much more difficult if the intern is not on site.

One aspect of the internship relationship that reduces its overall effectiveness is that, with the exception of summer internships, most internships are part time.  It’s very difficult to make traction as a part time employee in a full time world.  Every day feels like Monday and you never seem to be around when the cool, random projects are assigned.  It’s not an intentional oversight.  But “out of site,” can also be out of mind, or the project needs to be assigned to someone the manager has easy access to.

 

CHALLENGES FOR THE TELECOMMUTER

While telecommuting can help employees make more effective use of their time and can save money on gas/parking etc., it can come at a price especially for organizations with a more traditional culture.

Perception of not there = not working

For companies that don’t have a lot of people telecommuting, there can be a perception that “no there = not working.”  Here are two examples.

A colleague was talking about how one of the benefits of telecommuting was the opportunity to focus and work without as many of the interruptions that occur when he’s in his office.  He mentioned that he was going to “Take the day off to write performance reviews at home.”  Is he taking time off?  No, he’s doing his job.  He’s being extra conscientious in knowing the importance and challenge of writing a fair, accurate, thoughtful, constructive and valuable performance review.  I asked if it would be different if he was not at home, but was at a nearby coffee shop?  His response was that he’d still feel guilty.

This conversation left me wondering how successfully and comfortably a manager who feels guilty not being in the office even when he’s truly working can manage a generation who can work anywhere.

Another colleague was talking about how one of her employees works at home, not all the time, but on a regularly scheduled basis to accommodate a child care schedule.  Others on the staff were reluctant to contact the telecommuter at home and found themselves looking for someone “there” to do a task that was the telecommuter’s role.  My colleague found herself reminding the staff, “Call her, she’s working.”

Lost opportunities

Not every workplace project is well planned in advance.  When a new, urgent project arises, who gets the assignment?  Generally the person nearby and not the person working from home.  There is often not a deliberate thought of “To whom should I assign this?”  It’s who can get this addressed fast.  Also, while a new employee might not be thought of to lead a key project, if that employee is nearby when things heat up, there’s a greater likelihood to be asked to be involved, not just to help the project, but also as a growth and development opportunity.  These opportunities are so important to Gen Y’s job satisfaction.  But both they and their managers need to make decisions that will help those opportunities fall into place organically.  No one can say, “I promise you that you should work on site tomorrow because I have a feeling that a hot new project will come out of nowhere.”  It just doesn’t work that way.  Sometimes you just have to be more available when the unexpected arises.

Less connection

Email, text messaging and phone calls are a great way to communicate for many things.  But you can miss the nuances of tone when combined with visual cues that help you to understand whether someone is quietly pleased or borderline irritated.  Also, if a meeting is happening on site, there’s a reluctance to conference someone in.  It changes the meeting as the person on the phone is either overlooked or given excessive attention.  If everyone is calling in, that’s one thing.  If one person is offsite, it just doesn’t work as well.  So unless you’re a critical team member, you’ll probably miss the opportunity to be in on a meeting if you’re not there.

There are also unpredicatable conversations like the opportunity to be in an elevator with the CEO etc. that just won’t happen when you’re off site.

And then there’s just the magic of place and the shared experience of being in the same place at the same time.  Think about your college experience.  If you had done all your college work online, you might have learned as much academically, but think of what you’d have missed; the depth of friendships with your classmates, really getting to know certain professors (who can prove to be great references later on,) study groups over pizza, participation in student groups etc.  While you can do some of those things remotely, it takes longer to establish those relationships and connection.  Loyalty comes more from those relationships than the institutions themselves.  Place matters.  Perhaps not 100% of the time, but it’s much harder at 10%.

CONCLUSION

When navigating how to manage a staff where employees are telecommuting some or all of the time, the complexity of telecommuting forces the question of whether an employee is being paid for a number of hours worked or to get a project/task/job done.  Much depends on the role and type of work.  But clearly this topic will require discussion, decisions and clarity around unspoken givens.  Managers will need to define metrics and measurable to clarify expectations for their employees and confirm for themselves that the right work is getting done.  As these discussions unfold, it is important to realize that with 7 X 24 hour access, most employees likely work far more hours than they’re being compensated for.

Hiring employees who can work independently will become more important.  It will be critical to hire those who will be able to fight the distraction temptations and stay on task, and to seek out employees who will become committed to their project, their team, their management and their company.  Employees who only work hard when they’re being watched will not become successful telecommuters.  Make sure you hire the employees who can be successful in both an on-site and telecommuting model.

Accept for yourself and for others that not being in the office does not mean not working.  But also encourage your new employees to be on-site more.  It may not always be “necessary,” but it can often be valuable in unpredictable ways.

 

For Gen Y employees, especially if this is your first professional job, be sure you see both side of telecommuting.  On one side it surely helps you to be more efficient as you don’t have potentially long commutes and can save money on parking and gas.

But see the downside too.  See the temptation to do just what’s assigned and ask yourself if you would have done a better job if you gave it more time.  Ask yourself if there are projects you’re not being assigned because you’re not on-site when your manager gets the idea or the impromptu meeting that you miss because it’s just not the same to have a meeting in a conference room with someone else on speaker phone.  Think about the way people get to know each other and the opportunities missed by not being there.  Your generation can make quick and true connection with people you never meet.  But many of the people you need to connect with at work are not of your generation. 

Even though it goes against your efficiency inclinations, spend time at the office, even if you don’t “need” to be there.  Be a bit more casual with your time, especially at the start of a new job. 

Think about the bigger picture of your job.  It’s not just about getting the work done and getting it done well.  It’s not just about meeting expectations, it’s about exceeding them.  For some projects, just good enough is fine.  For others, those subtle differences can impact success or failure, a promotion or staying at a current level.  These are not black and white issues.  They’re far more subtle.

It’s about being a part of an organization and that’s much harder to do if you’re not there.

Manager / Employee Sweet Spot

September 15, 2008

Clearly Gen Y’s and their managers need to cooperate to create a professional environment that works for both of them.  If managers only looks at the work they need to get done and employees only looks at what’s needed to advance their career, the probability of an effective working relationship is pretty slim.

Manager vs Employee Needs

Manager vs Employee Needs

When looking for the right fit on either the manager or employee side, look for the intersection of position needs and employee interests.  That’s the center of the sweet spot – the larger the center, the better the fit.  No rocket science there.

The next step is a richer conversation between a manager and an employee (or prospective employee) that can go something like this.

“Look, no job will be a perfect fit.  The good news is that what you’re interested in doing, and where your skills are covers most of what we need.  But there are some things that need to be done as part of this position that may not be your first choice.  Here are three reasons why you need to do it anyway:

  1. This needs to be done and it’s part of the role.  (See “no job will be a perfect fit.”)
  2. I believe this skill / project will be important to your career growth.
  3. You might be surprised.  Once you get into this, you may find it is interesting/fun etc.  You don’t know until you really dig in.

On the flip side, there’s this other project/skill that is important to you.  I understand why, but it’s just not part of what this department does.  But, there is another area of the company that does that type of work.  Let me talk to them and see if they can “borrow” you to be a team member on one of those projects.  That will give you a chance to get the skill you want and see another side of our business.

What do you think?  Is that fair?”

This approach shows attractive candidates or a new hire that you do care about their interests, career development and growth, but it isn’t summer camp.  It’s a business and there’s some work that needs to get done, even if it’s not a particular area of interest or fun.

While some new-to-market employees will have a fairly clear idea of what types of projects they want to work on and where they want to grow, others may not.  But just showing these candidates or new hires that this is the way career planning is approached at your company or in your department creates an attractive environment where employees will be inclined to stay.

On the employee side, showing your recruiter or new manager that you want to grow, but recognize that not every project or assignment will perfectly fit your aspiration, demonstrates a maturity and balance that will make you an attractive candidate and a welcome co-worker.

If it doesn’t work both ways, it doesn’t work.

Gen Y and Boundaries (or lack thereof) – Part 3

September 8, 2008

Last week I addressed how Gen Y’s have very broad boundaries around information sharing.  This week marks the final “Gen Y and Boundaries” installment.

This week’s boundary focus: Relationships

PARENTS
For the most part, Gen Y’s have great relationships with their parents.  Parents of this generation have included their children in many family decisions since their children were old enough to point.  Teenage and young adult children communicate with their parents frequently and openly.  And, while due to many factors, moving back home after college no longer has a stigma associated with it.  From a roles and relationships standpoint, the boundaries where parents “say” and children “do” is not the way many current households are run.  While this generation respects their parents enormously, for good and for bad, these parents and their children relate more as peers (much of the time) than a more traditional parent/child relationship.

FRIENDS
This is the generation that popularized the “friends with benefits ” phrase.  I’m not implying that this type of relationship boundary jumping is new to this generation.  But the fact that an acronym (FWB) is now associated with the phrase, certainly indicates increased frequency and acceptance of this type of arrangement.  For many reasons, this makes me cringe, but I need to remember that I’m viewing it through, now failing, Baby Boomer eyes.  I must look back and recognize the boundaries that my generation pushed in this area. 

MANAGERS and EXECUTIVES
With delayed adulthood so ever present among Gen Y’s (more on that in a future blog) their first real manager may be subconsciously viewed as a transitional parent and, in part, a peer.  Gen Y’s  may assume that their manager’s primary concern be their growth and development as an end to itself, rather than a means to having a talented staff to accomplish necessary tasks.  Gen Y’s will expect to be asked for their opinions on a broad range of issues.  And their communication with their managers may be more informal than what is acceptable in the company’s culture.

Gen Y’s respect executives, but they are not intimidated by them.   When I began my career, it would have been unheard of to contact the president of your company, and you certainly wouldn’t do it without your manager’s permission.  Gen Y’s don’t think twice about it.  Some managers have found that bringing their new-to-market employees to executive meetings can yield unpredictable results.  Gen Y’s are generally comfortable speaking up and can offer creative, bold, new (though sometimes naive and unrealistic) ideas.  In many ways, this level of confidence is wonderful and refreshing, but it can go against the culture of many organizations.  Expect that these employees will be respectful of senior management, just don’t automatically expect that their demonstration of respect will conform to your demonstration of respect definition.

 
So, what’s a manager to do?

 
Managers must first recognize that when they hire a Gen Y employee, instincts around these boundaries will be different than the instincts of some of their older employees.  As I discussed in the information sharing blog, there will be conversations you’ll need to have that you may not expect.  Those conversations are important not only for your Gen Y’s ability to be successful, but also to growing your skills to effectively manage a range of employee types.  Don’t avoid them.  Get good at them. 

If you have a corporate policy around office relationships, don’t expect that your Gen Y employees will find it in the corporate manual.  You may need to include it in one of those, “by the way” discussions.  If there is a policy, don’t expect this generation to abide by it.  Far less boundary jumping generations in the past have ignored it.  Policy or not, office relationship that go beyond a traditional friendship will impact the dynamics.  There are conversations you’ll need to have.  Have them and have them wisely.

Don’t be offended, if the tone, language and communications style your Gen Y employees use with you closely resembles the way they communicate with their friends.  Pick your battles.  Some things may just jolt you into saying “that was strange.”  But others may really go against your grain or the grain of the corporate culture.  Decide which approaches need to shift and provide constructive and good humored coaching around those.  Present your coaching as helping them fit into the culture, not your lack of confidence in their ability to make good choices.  If they have something they want to say or suggest to a corporate executive, encourage them to do that first interaction with your coaching in the background.  Unless you strongly disagree, don’t alter, but help strengthen the message your Gen Y employee wants to communicate.  Be sure they know that you want to be involved at first to help them and their message to be impressive.  For many executives, unsolicited input from new-to-market employees is refreshing (as long as it’s done in a respectful way.)  Coaching them to do this well will make them look good and make you look good.

Help your Gen Y employees make the shift from approaching you as a transitional parent to approaching you as a manager – they need to understand this difference to grow and be successful in the professional world.  One difference may be in the way projects are assigned.  This generations was not raised to purely “do as I say.”  More conversational than dictatorial work requests will go a long way.  Another difference is likely to be around how their personal growth ranks with getting the job done.  A parent may view a task as a means to generate personal growth.   A manager primarily views personal growth as a means to get the job done.  To a parent, it’s “learn it, it’s important for you.”  To a manager it’s, “I hired you to do a job.”  That said, there may be times when it’s advisable to provide personal growth opportunities to your employees for their own sake, even if it’s not a skill you need them to have today.  Helping your employees grow is one way to demonstrate that you care about them as people, not just employees, and that’s a big hot button for Gen Y.  It will encourage retention and job satisfaction and that’s a big hot button for you. 

 

As for Gen Y’s, remember that every interaction creates an impression.  You will need to think consciously about things you may not have had to think consciously about before.  Examples include the level of familiarity that is acceptable when dealing with your managers and senior managers, what is and is not an appropriate relationship with co-workers, and the right tone and medium to use for communication.  Text messaging during a conversation with a friend may be completely acceptable, but text messaging during a meeting with someone in business is viewed as not giving them your full attention.  It can be insulting.  Remember that your manager is your manager, not your parent, not your peer, and not your friend.  Your manager hired you first and foremost to do a job.  Your personal and professional growth is critical to that end, and the best managers will view that broadly and through a long term lens. But your professional growth is primarily helping you to be more valuable to the organization, not first as an end to itself.  Don’t lose or sifle your creativity, just be sure your actions fit the culture of the environment, so that you can be successful.

 
To wrap up the Gen Y and Boundaries discussion, it’s important to recognize that pushing beyond the established, accepted boundaries is always the role of the new generation.  It’s part of growing up.  The experiences, influences and tools presented to a new generation will impact which boundaries they, as a group, push.  But, the bottom line is that this is nothing new.

What is new about this generation is how much they expect prior generations to accept their boundary definitions, rather than trying to fit into the tighter boundaries previously defined (first and boundary push later.)  They are a defiant and confident group.  They are not opposed to making waves, but remember that they also want to be successful.  Some of the boundaries they are trying to expand may make a business stronger.  Both sides need to be flexible and patient and willing to learn from each other in order for work to . . . work.

Gen Y and Boundaries (or lack thereof) – Part 2

September 1, 2008

Last week I addressed two Gen Y boundary issues that are often discussed and fairly clear: Time and Place.  Much has been written about Gen Y and their desire, or rather, demand for flexibility, but perhaps not with the boundary umbrella.

I want to add one more “no boundary” topic to the list:  Information Sharing

I’m sure Gen Y’s have boundaries around what information they are and are not willing to share, but I’m confident in saying that it’s far broader than my own and most of my generation’s (late boomer.) 

I remember quite clearly my first attempt to establish a Facebook account.  I was meeting with a Gen Y client who will be launching a wonderful new charity-based website, and asked for his help in setting up my Facebook profile.  I was stopped cold to see that in addition to your gender, birth date and hometown, the template asked for Political and Religious views.  My Gen Y client was perplexed that I was perplexed.

“Why would I want to share that information?” I asked him. 

“Why wouldn’t you?” was his reply.  “Don’t your friends already know your religion and politics?”

“Yes, but it seems strange to have those front and center,” I replied.

“Why?” he asked again and the conversation continued from there.

Whether it is my generation or my personality, I am clearly more private, by nature, than most of the Gen Y people I meet. 

In many ways the individually, megaphoned platform created by personal web sites, blogging, social networking, YouTube etc. provides a wonderful way to share thoughts, insights and experiences with friends, family, colleagues and often a broader audience.  Previously, if you had something you wanted to say or show somewhat publicly, you were at the mercy of the media, publishers and editors. These new(ish) platforms are the great leveler allowing anyone’s voice to be heard.  I love that I can broadcast my thoughts without having to submit my work to a publisher, and hope and wait and likely, be edited.  But whether Gen Y is using this opportunity wisely is another story.

Take YouTube as an example.  You can find videos from broadcasting all forms of partying, to imitating celebrities in their less flattering moments, to showcasing cruel activities towards others.  Many Gen Y’s appear comfortable in the exhibitionist role.  I know this is not the majority of the YouTube content, but it is the content that seems to get the most public attention.  I believe, that’s the point.

While these videos may be fun to share with a small circle of friends, I’m not sure Gen Y fully understands the more public impressions that these videos make.  I’m all for everyone’s 15 minutes of fame.  But is that what you want to be known for?

As a manager, here are some things to think about regarding your Gen Y employees and their potential lack of an internal editor when it comes to sharing information.

Think “loose lips, sink ships.” If Gen Y’s are willing to share such personal information so publicly, do you think they’ll, at one point or another, intentionally or unintentionally, end up broadcasting something about their job, the company, you, your clients or customers etc. that you’d prefer they not say?  Bet on it. As an example, the Isareli army has clamped down on what its soldiers can and cannot share on Facebook.  Some posts and photos had, I’m sure inadvertently, shared sensitive information. 

Also think about the information Gen Y’s share about themselves.  Just as people are measured by the company they keep, your business partners, clients and customers will measure your company by the employees you hire.  Their profile becomes your profile.  Is it possible that they’ll present themselves in a way that becomes embarrassing and you’ll find yourself concerned how your senior management, clients or customers may react?  You can bet on that too.

The viral nature of the Internet is what makes all this information sharing so powerful and potentially more troubling.  An innocent exchange with a friend can suddenly be forwarded along and then forwarded along until the number of people with access to it grows geometrically.  The audience expands well beyond what was intended.

This is not to say that Gen Y’s won’t make you incredibly proud as well.  These bright, creative, caring employees can showcase you and themselves in a wonderful light.  But the risk of it going the other way is pretty strong.

So, what’s a manager to do?

Shutting off Internet access to social networking and broadcasting tools (my opinion on that will be in another blog) won’t help and won’t reduce your risk.

You need to impact the information they choose to share.  When most new-to-market employees begin their first “real” job, there’s training on the hard skills they need to do their job.  But there’s often little guidance regarding the general business life skills that they’ll also need to be successful.  Your instincts may help you make good choices about the information you share about yourself and your company, but your instincts were honed in a more private time.  You cannot depend on new-to-market employees to make the choices you’d hope they would make.  You need to provide guidance, preferably in an open conversation rather than in a formal training class, regarding acceptable and desired boundaries around information sharing.  I still have to remind career-launcher clients that their “black spider of death” web site may not make them attractive to a prospective employer.  This generally comes after I suggest that the ringtone of someone throwing up may lose them credibility if their phone rings during a meeting or interview. 

There are things they won’t think about, connections they won’t make, impacts they won’t imagine unless you spell it out for them and overtly remind them.  These may be one of the awkward conversations you really don’t want to have with your new employees, but isn’t that better than the alternative?

 
As for Gen Y’s, remember that when you are looking for a job, any serious interviewer (and these are the ones you want) will do as much background checking on you as they can.  They will use all the search engines to read and see more about you than is on your resume.  Make sure you are presenting the image you want.  I can’t tell you how many times a prospective employer called me to say, “the resume was great, but I dug a little deeper and . . . s/he’s just not a fit for us.”  This can be before or after the interview.  In many cases, your online profile can stop you from even getting in the door!  But, it can also help get you in the door.  Remember that these are tool and you can control your image.  Post wisely.

That holds for employees as well.  Think about what you say publicly about yourself and your employer.  Think about what information should and should not be shared, and where it may end up after you post or send it.  Once it’s out there, you can’t unring that bell.  Be aware of the impact of your words and actions, and how this viral platform can help or hurt you.  Information sharing cuts both ways and can get away from you quickly.  Proceed with caution.

 
Next week, the last blog on Gen Y and boundaries.

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