Decentralized Work: The Final Frontier
We’re nearly a decade into the new millennium, and frankly I’m a little disappointed about how far off we are from the fictional goals I grew up with in television and film. Over 40 years ago Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke predicted that by 2001, artificial intelligence would be overthrowing the human race (2001: A Space Odyssey). Yet, even as I write this, my computer stalls every time I ask it to do more than three things simultaneously.
One of my favorite films -- Back to the Future Part II -- predicted that by 2015, hoverboards would replace skateboards and my flying car would operate on banana peels and other assorted leftovers. But as of last night I am still throwing my leftovers into the garbage disposal and spending $47 to fill up the family car.
Where is the future I was promised?
Of all the empty promises about the future made to me by prognosticators, the one that bothers me most is the one I think about every morning as I put on my suit, drive to the nearest train station, stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other people for 40 minutes, and walk several blocks until I reach my office. It’s the promise of technological innovation and sophistication that would allow me to work from anywhere, any time.
Whether you call it teleworking, Web working, telecommuting, distance working, or e-working, the concept is the same: Work isn’t some place you go, it’s something you do. It focuses on the information-age idea of decentralizing the office, as opposed to the industrial-age idea of bringing everyone to one single location.
What is so frustrating about the relatively slow growth in teleworking is that, unlike the flying car, the technology and infrastructure to make teleworking a reality for most organizations is available and affordable. Yet its growth has been much slower than what many people predicted in the 1980s and 1990s.
So what’s the holdup?
As a manager myself, it pains me to say that poor management is usually the biggest stumbling block to an effective and successful teleworking policy. Smart colleges and universities and other organizations that want to boost productivity, retain talented employees, and reduce costs should be taking a hard look at a comprehensive teleworking policy that can be implemented strategically and appropriately on a job-by-job or department-by-department basis.
It is ironic that higher education, which has been so successful in implementing distance learning programs, has lagged so far behind in implementing distance-working programs for its employees. Russ Poulin, associate director of WCET (Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications), a member-based cooperative organization of academic institutions and service providers, says that for the first time in his memory, professors who teach multiple online courses are now asking why they need to move to the physical locations of their schools at all.
But distance learning adjuncts should be just the tip of the teleworking iceberg. Most schools employ a large contingent of administrators and practitioners who could accomplish some -- if not most -- of their work off-site. The idea isn’t to have empty campuses or empty offices; the idea is to provide a comprehensive teleworking policy that is agile enough to be systematically implemented to best meet the needs of the organization and the people it serves.
The higher education community isn’t the only industry that is behind the curve. The federal government has been one of the largest supporters of teleworking. Over the years, Congress has proposed and passed legislation to support telecommuting for federal agencies. But even those efforts haven’t taken off to the extent some had hoped. In 2007, then-General Services Administration Chief Lurita Doan lamented the fact that only 4.2 percent of the eligible federal work force teleworked one or more days each week.
“Some worry that telework will result in reduced quality and quantity of work,” Doan said. “Research and my own experience have consistently shown the opposite. Teleworkers perform at least equal or better than office-bound workers.”
There are a few simple steps that institutions, nonprofit agencies, for-profit companies, and all other organizations can take to get the teleworking ball moving.
1. Senior management should first establish criteria on which jobs would be good candidates for teleworking. Management must always be at the center of any changes to the office work flow structure. By its very nature, teleworking is decentralized, but that doesn’t mean that policies and procedures should follow suit. Too often teleworking policies are conjured up by the IT staff because they are the ones implementing the technologies to make it work. That’s a mistake.
- Job duties and functions
- Performance measures
- Availability and communication requirements
- Consistent and mandatory use of technology and programs
- Standard operating procedures
2. Management should lead the way by effectively working out of the office themselves. Studies have shown that senior administrators and managers are more receptive to teleworking when they telework themselves.
3. Manage by results. Many seasoned managers have been trained to supervise very closely. Some managers refuse to embrace technology, or they believe that allowing workers out of a supervisor’s sight jeopardizes productivity. But managers who oversee teleworkers are forced to become better managers. Instead of seeing who is in the office, they’re forced to see what is being accomplished. Managing by results is much more effective than managing by walking around.
The more I’ve thought about (and practiced) decentralized work arrangements, the more optimistic I feel. At least in this regard, the future is now! The question is, will managers embrace it?
Justin Draeger is vice president of public policy & advocacy for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
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