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Telework: The Killer of Work Culture
Offering the option of working remotely and implementing a teleworking program has become a top priority for senior managers and entrepreneurs. The newspapers are talking about companies in Silicon Valley putting into practice extreme flexible working policies, blog posts are marketing other companies that have recently implemented the practice, and Colombia even passed a new law regarding telework (Act 1221 of 2008).
But strangely, teleworking is a dangerous practice. It’s a temporary motivator that becomes breeding ground for laziness. It finances and incubates your competition or a new venture on the time of your clients' projects. Teleworking is a killer of work culture.
At first, teleworking looks like a timely solution to the transportation problems we face today, and to reduce office and equipment costs. It seems an efficient way to quickly incorporate talent from other locations, and an essential motivator for employees who aspire to work from wherever and whenever they want.
All these benefits are true and enjoyable during the implementation phase, making the company attractive to recruiting and retaining talent. But the truth is that once the Hawthorne Effect has passed, telework hinders communication, breaks down any sense of belonging, accelerates employee turnover and presents an impediment to teamwork.
Over five years ago I had the experience of participating in one of the first teleworking programs in Colombia. This company had 40 personnel at the time and used teleworking to scale up to a total of 50 people. The company sold its headquarters, tables, mugs, chairs, desks, technical equipment, servers… everything except laptops. All employees according to their performance were gradually allowed to work from home or wherever they wished, and stipends were granted for transportation, electricity and internet.
Everything seemed perfect. Employee satisfaction was at a record high according to the quarterly evaluations. People reported reduction of transport and clothing costs, more free time, and more closeness with their families. The company decreased its operating costs. Additionally, it could grow quickly and easily: all we had to do was lease new laptops and we were ready for more engineers.
The Hawthorne Effect lasted between 6 and 18 months. Only after many analyses and countermeasures did we see the damage and havoc that telework had caused.
Training and education that was previously made easy by proximity to peers or the availability of other more experienced engineers became more challenging.
Bringing about simple organizational changes that previously could be discussed internally and implemented in hours now took weeks.
Divulging anything important now required tremendous coordination over meetings and teleconferences.
Networking that used to come naturally now turned into mandatory meetings that created a burden on employees.
New hires could never learn the corporate values and philosophies that can only be absorbed through observation or informal contact with peers.
Some of the employees created parallel companies from which they provided services.
Turnover times of staff recruited during the telework period were shorter than those who entered during normal periods.
What once set us apart became nothing more than a commodity, aggravated by the fact that the company was now sluggish and had less sense of belonging.
Through this experience I learned the essential value of work culture. This is the kind of culture that emerges naturally through face-to-face interactions, team lunches and breakfasts, the teamwork that comes from knowing you can ask an expert just by getting up and going to talk to them, or noticing the expression on a colleague’s face and being able to ask “Are you ok? Is something wrong?"
Teleworking can work as an exceptional measure, but not as the radical solution that it’s being sold as today. Some of these exceptional circumstances are:
You’re a freelancer, therefore you are a solitary player who does not require expanding or creating workplace culture.
Your company has individual, well-defined, highly standardized tasks that require low creative processes.
People who have been in the company for a long time and know the culture and values well.
Highly mature professionals, with years of professional experience and a solid well-developed work ethic.
Specific instances, such as certain days of the week, illness or family circumstances (example, newborn children).
But under any other circumstance, for young companies, employees who are still developing their work ethic, recent hires, or knowledge industries, teleworking will kill all work culture.
This is a post-mortem experience gleaned from more than three years of trying to make telework survive—that’s how long we took to detect and correct the problem. It’s the experience of seeing other North American companies implement this strategy and experience the same situation.
When reading a blog post or an exceptional case of telework implementation, ask yourself: is this really a proven success story? Or is it an early victory by someone who's just starting? Are they the 30 best programmers in the world and therefore will be successful regardless of environment? Are they programmers with an average age over 35 and therefore have a highly defined work maturity?
As an individual it’s comfortable to work anywhere, and you can get individual tasks done faster. However, while everyone may be faster individually, the company is slower. It's like having Herbie at the end of the line.
If you’re still determined to implement a teleworking program anyway, know that dismantling it later it will be harder and way more painful than starting. We had to repurchase office space, install reliable internet, change salary policies, and see a decrease in employee satisfaction. Not to mention that we lost valuable talent when some employees refused to return to the traditional system.
However, despite all this, we had no regrets. Today this company regained its work culture, decreased turnover, improved communication, and discipline once again became a respected value. And the force of everyone combined, rather than individual efforts, has kept it together.