Last week I wrote a blog entry about a federal agency that was in a somewhat sticky situation with respect to telecommuting policies. This week I’d like to talk more about that.
As you know if you read my previous blog entry, this agency had to allow *all* employees to telework 3 days/week. I already discussed the problems with that.
The other problem with their arrangement is they had to follow the policy of not requiring any personal information from the employee. So the managers could not demand their employees’ home or cell phone numbers. This meant that when a manager need to quickly contact a telecommuting staff member, he couldn’t just pick up the phone. The manager’s best choices were to leave the employee a voicemail on his work number and wait for him to pick it up, or send an email and wait, similarly, for a response. The policy required the employee to check for voicemails/emails every 2 hours but, as you know, when you need an urgent piece of information from an employee, 2 hours is a long time to wait!
When you combine this with the previously discussed problem that there were many telecommuters whose roles or skills weren’t suited to telecommuting, you can see what a burden this becomes.
While I suggested IM (Instant Messaging) as a tool to reach an employee quickly, there was ambiguity about the managers’ abilities to require this. If the employee had up to 2 hours to respond, they said, then didn’t they have the same privilege for IM? Couldn’t they just ignore the IM for 2 hours? Clearly now you can see we’ve gone beyond the intent of the rules here. The policy to check for messages every 2 hours (at most) is not to give the telecommuter the freedom of waiting a few hours before having to respond to their managers or coworkers, but rather to make sure the telecommuter is checking in without overburdening him to check voicemail every 10 minutes. IM, however, is a tool that actively notifies you (through a popup window) immediately when someone is trying to reach you. However, bad relationships between the managers and telecommuters, including a serious lack of trust, had degraded the situation to the point where some telecommuters were holding the managers to the letter of the law (rather than the spirit) of every policy and managers were paralyzed into inaction for fear of being reported.
All these problems seem quite extreme so I should probably clarify. In the room full of managers I was training, there were some whose employees were willing to give out their home phone numbers. Similarly there were some who used IM without complaint. However, there’s always a couple of bad seeds, as they say, that can ruin it for everyone. These were the folks who caused the general frustration and lack of trust amongst the managers, and some managers had more of these than others (and perhaps these managers’ frustrated actions exacerbated the problem making other more neutral staff members behave more extremely too).
Again, there simply isn’t a magic bullet to solve this problem. I still believe IM is the right answer in this situation (well, ok, if you work from home I actually believe giving out your home # is appropriate, but short of that, IM is the best answer). However, to make use of the proper tools the relationship between the managers, the telecommuters, and the policymakers needs to be improved to the point where frank discussions about the best way to operate can take place, and open-minded interpretations of policies can ensure the best environment for getting the work done.
I have one more aspect of the challenges this group faced which I’ll write about next time. Stay tuned!