It seems that in every management training session I do lately, the same issue comes up: we’re being forced to do this flex time and telecommuting stuff and it doesn’t work for us. We need our people here in the office. We need them available during certain hours.
I acknowledge that it’s not as easy as saying, “If you manage by results then it doesn’t matter where your people are working.” Some jobs are structured around handling service tasks as they come your way and you really do need someone to be in a particular place at a particular time.
Nonetheless, it often seems to me that managers are acting out of entrenched habits or resistance to change. Open-mindedness is called for. The world is changing, and we must change with it or risk becoming an employer that can no longer attract the best and brightest. Here are some common objections I hear, and my response to them:
1. My people don’t produce anything, they just answer questions and provide support. So I need them to be here during the hours I’ve said they will be available.
Clearly in this case, the hours your people work are critical. You need to be able to publish specific hours to your customers. But does it really matter where your people are working from? Set standards for responsiveness, and then find a way to gather customer feedback. Do your customers tell you that the phone goes to voicemail frequently, or that they leave a message and don’t get a call back in a timely manner? Then you have a problem. The problem is not that the employee is working from home and you can’t see them, it’s that they aren’t answering the phone or returning calls to the standard you have set. Address the real problem.
2. I often call my employee because I need her and she doesn’t answer the phone.
Doesn’t that happen when she’s in the office too? Let’s be reasonable here. Sometimes your employee is in a meeting, on the other line, or in the bathroom. These things happen in the office as well as at home. Set standards, once again. Tell her how soon you expect a call back when you leave a message. Or ask for a schedule of conference calls and breaks so that you know when the best time to call is.
3. I get what I ask for. But how do I know that my employee is really working eight hours a day?
This is really a key point. Who cares if he’s working eight hours a day, if the employee is producing the results you’ve asked for? Is it fair that the employee who works efficiently and gets the same job done in six hours as others do in eight hours gets penalized? They should be rewarded instead. Give them some extra assignments if you think they have extra time. Choose assignments that are “stretch” assignments and will develop the employee, or choose projects that you know the employee will enjoy. That way you get more from them, plus they get rewarded for being efficient.
4. I think my employee takes care of personal business on company time. Sometimes I call and I can tell he’s out in a store or somewhere other than at home.
Again, this comes down to setting standards, communicating your expectations, and then measuring what you get. If your employee is delivering what you’ve asked for and can shop at Home Depot at the same time, why does that matter? If, on the other hand, your customers are telling you that they call and get put on hold while the employee deals with a cashier at the grocery store, then you have a problem. Deal with the real problem.
5. I need my people to work well together as a team and to communicate frequently. They need face time for that.
Perhaps more than any other objection, I acknowledge this one as a true challenge. Teamwork is important, and face-to-face communication is a great teambuilder. Nonetheless, the world is changing. Some teams are entirely virtual and they make it work. Recently I heard a good suggestion from a manager in a federal agency. She said she sets one day a week, Wednesday, as an “all hands in the office” day. Except for true emergencies, everyone must be in the office that day and all routine team meetings are scheduled for that day. For teams that are geographically dispersed, video conferencing is a way to make something similar happen.
I’m opening up a can of worms here, but there really is a generational trend in all of this. Some of us Boomers just can’t get over the fact that we weren’t allowed to work from home or have flexible hours when we were just starting out in our careers. Get over it! If you’re truly managing by results, and you should be in most cases, then you’ll eventually see all these objections for what they really are—excuses and irrelevant noise.