Flex Execs: How to Get Your Teammates on Board with Your Telecommuting

iStock_000004026171XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

If you use flex time at work or telecommute, you may find, like Rodney Dangerfield, that you “don’t get no respect.” A report by The Center for Work & Family notes that a primary challenge for organizations that use telecommuting is the “perceived difficulty in monitoring employee performance and measuring employee productivity.” In other words, many office-bound managers and colleagues think flex workers aren’t pulling their weight.

Yet ample research has proven otherwise. A July 2012 study by Stanford University [PDF] researchers found that employees with flexible work arrangements are actually more productive than their office-bound counterparts, despite skepticism over its effectiveness suggested by phrases like “shirking from home.” In the study, telecommuters took 15 percent more calls, worked 11 percent more hours, and had 4 percent higher overall productivity than office colleagues.

In her book Innovations in Office Design: The Critical Influence Approach to Effective Work Environments, author Diane Stegmeier reported on a wide range of studies that echo Stanford’s findings:

  • American Express found telecommuting can increase employee productivity by as much as 45 percent.
  • AT&T found teleworkers spend an additional hour working per day on average.
  • Future Foundation found teleworkers saved their employers up to 10 hours weekly in the United Kingdom.
  • The Telework Coalition found telecommuting can increase employee productivity more than 20 percent.

Seeking Peace

Not only do flex work options like telecommuting result in greater productivity for employers, but there are also good reasons behind why many employees want to use them. A new study conducted by FlexJobs found that the top reason job seekers want flexible jobs is work-life balance (cited by nearly 80 percent of respondents), followed by family, commute stress, health, environmental, and exercise.

Ironically, the number-one reason that many prefer to work from home in particular is to avoid interruptions from colleagues. A whopping 82 percent of those surveyed said intrusive coworkers make it difficult to get their job done efficiently in the office, along with office politics (73 percent) and overall distractions (71 percent). So while some office workers worry that remote workers will be more distracted at home, the reverse is actually true.

Homeward Bound

With so much evidence to support it, you might expect that employers would jump at the chance to have their workers telecommute or use flextime—and some companies do. Marketing executive Lori A. Freemire 
of software maker and distributor Micromine says that with marketing responsibilities for 22 offices around the world and myriad time zone differences, work flexibility is a must. As a result, she works up to 15 hours a week flexibly offsite, depending on workplace demands.

“I have conference calls when I’m at home in the evenings since the head office is at work,” explains Freemire. “Arriving to the office at diverse times of the day is ‘normal’ for our office, which makes it nice for parents who need to get to kids’ sports events, school meetings, or doctor appointments. We hold product demonstrations that may include three continents. I regularly work on Sunday evenings since the other offices are ‘in’ at that time and it makes me more efficient and responsive.”

Freemire adds that all team members are equipped with laptops and smartphones to work from home as needed in winter weather—and as a result, she believes teams are more productive. In fact, with everyone working flexibly, she sometimes feels teams are too accessible. “I don’t turn off my phone or have an auto ‘not in the office’ reply for my e-mail, but I do manage my time and priorities so that the emails/texts/calls don’t run me,” she says. “I check messages at set times—definitely not during meals or when I’m with my family.”

She credits her company’s management team for the productivity results. “Our management recognizes that there is no ‘9 to 5’ in our world, so rigidity is impractical,” says Freemire. “Do I have to work weekends on occasion? Yes, but knowing that my company and management allow me to work a more flexible schedule, I get what has to be done when it has to be done.

Convincing Colleagues

Here are some strategies for corporate women to use when trying to convince their colleagues that flexible work arrangements are productive:

Set expectations. Create a proposal or set of guidelines that gives structure to your flexible work arrangement, suggests Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs. Consider what forms of flexibility you will use (telecommuting, flexible schedule, alternative work hours, part-time hours, job sharing, etc.), as well as what your schedule will be, and how and when you will be reachable when out of the office.

Halley Bock, CEO and president of Fierce, Inc., agrees that setting expectations is critical in a remote environment: “Define what adequate communication actually is: will we check in with each other once a day? Or once a week?”

Stay in contact. Create specific times and modes of communication to stay in continuous contact with your colleagues if you’re working away from the office. Fell advises using different ways to communicate, such as phone, IM, email, message boards, conference calls, and regular check-in meetings with your supervisors and close peers. “It’s up to you to maintain contact and remind people that you’re still a key colleague and team player,” says Fell.

“Having open, honest communication is the most important thing, even in remote work environments,” adds Bock. “Sometimes it can be face-to-face, and sometimes it has to be Skype. The key is to come together, whatever that looks like.”

Lionel P. Robert Jr., assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, adds that research has shown silence from remote team members is often interpreted as a bad thing. “In the absence of information, co-workers of remote employees normally assume the worst,” says Robert. To counter this, Robert makes the following recommendations for communicating while telecommuting:

  • Send status updates. Keep coworkers posted on what you are doing and what you have done, suggests Robert. You may also want to keep coworkers aware of personal issues you feel comfortable disclosing. “Whether we like it or not, office gossip has positives,” says Robert. “When coworkers know that you are going through difficult times, they tend to be more forgiving and understanding.”
  • Reply quickly to emails. Teammates who work regular business hours in the office may develop resentments toward remote workers if they believe they are not actively engaged in their work. To avoid that tendency, Robert recommends responding quickly to emails so that they know you, like them, are actively engaged with work.
  • Virtually hang out. Consider using a chat application like Yammer or Chatter that allows teams to interact in chat rooms, allowing coworkers a window on your world. “Research has shown that ultimately these water cooler communications are what promote team cohesion,” says Robert. “Remote working relationships often suffer from a lack of these informal communications.” But don’t rely on virtual contact for everything—you can still come together periodically as a group, or have a conference call, to cover details and delve into deeper issues if necessary.

Track it. Track your own productivity, and provide regular reports to your team. Consider what metrics are really key to your success, and keep a daily log of these metrics and your accomplishments—extrapolate that into weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly accomplishments as time goes on. Fell recommends comparing this information to your previous years’ accomplishments or performance reviews to see where your productivity has benefited the most.

Have a sterling record. You can’t argue with success. Freemire advises women who strive for flexibility to first have a solid track record of cooperation and workplace productivity. When Freemire was pregnant with her first child, there was no Internet or teleconferencing. She managed Latin America sales and marketing for an engineering firm and was the only employee who could speak Spanish.

“My absence would have been detrimental to our sales and marketing efforts,” says Freemire. “Knowing this and caring about my territory, I proposed working from home with a fax machine and computer to prepare communications and to have the company cover any phone costs. Because I had built good interoffice relationships and worked hard to that point, my proposal was quickly accepted.”

Freemire adds that the “experiment” worked so well that she successfully repeated the same process two years later with her second child, and two other women were allowed to work from home as well. “It takes small steps to effect change,” she says.

Set an example. Freemire also recommends finding other respected people in the company, such as a mentor or other champion, to speak with about flex work. “Find out the views of leadership from the HR department as well to see if this has been done,” she advises. “Sometimes a company has had a bad experience and is gun-shy. With today’s technology, it is possible to better manage your priorities.” Freemire suggests that if you have a long commute, take the time to show how working from home one day a week allows you to be more productive.

While some colleagues and managers may continue to worry about creating a cohesive company culture in a remote environment despite your best efforts to prove the contrary, you can find ways to create opportunities for communication and continue to make the effort. “Determine the culture you want and its attributes, and then apply those attributes to conversations,” says Bock.

And a last word to the wise? “Drop by the office if possible,” says Robert—“especially for important meetings or office parties.”