Time for a change

Telework program stalled or just limping along? Stop blaming midlevel managers.

Telework program stalled or just limping along? Stop blaming midlevel managers

Diane Stegmeier is a change management consultant. Typically, her clients are Fortune 500 companies and federal agencies that need help adjusting to new conditions induced by downsizing, mergers and acquisitions — and increasingly, telework. While everyone knows resistance by midlevel managers is telework’s biggest barrier, Stegmeier disagrees and places the blame on top executives instead.

These days, many telework programs are launched by edict handed down from on high, with a goal to slash costs and increase profits by reducing real estate. The trouble is, midlevel managers are given little guidance on how to implement the program.

“Execs say to managers: Here’s what we’re doing, here are your new guidelines — often printed on one sheet of paper — but it doesn’t help them be better managers,” Stegmeier says. “It’s not engaging them in the process. These managers have a lot of good ideas that should be taken into consideration and concerns that should be heard.”

Stegmeier Consulting, in Cleveland, Ohio, counsels companies on how to “protect human capital” as they struggle to reinvent policies, processes and hierarchies that have been in place for decades. “I’m an external resource who’s not caught up in the politics,” she says. “I can see things holistically without having the memory of all the times when my idea wasn’t selected, or that if I say this, someone else remembers something else was done — the syndrome of ‘We never did it that way before’ or “We tried that and it didn’t work.’”

Stegmeier says she’s often brought into a firm when one of two things is happening. It acknowledges it can gain hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars from telework but still insists it won’t work, or once the program has been launched, there’s a dramatic drop in performance that doesn’t bounce back. 

She offers these tips to consider before launching a program:

  • Involve midlevel managers. Make sure they understand the reasons behind the change and the business issues, and help them help their employees.

  • Provide the right work space. Before sending employees home, make sure they are safe there and have every technology tool imaginable.

  • Look out for barriers to success. Trust is a big one. If the company values visibility over results, that behavior needs to change. Employees must feel free to express their fears about the change. If they feel they won’t be a good teleworker, they need to share that before going home.

  • Provide consistent communication. Give midlevel managers a tool to communicate a consistent message to all employees. Put mechanisms in place if things don’t go right, like a hotline number for the teleworker to call when he’s having problems.

  • Slow down. Don’t expect to implement the full telework program all at once. Try a department or two first. Or if you must implement it companywide, don’t send employees home full time. Help people make the transition, increasing days slowly. Reserve some in-office time for employees to discuss how telework is working.

  • Keep culture alive. Find ways to extend the positive aspects of the company culture. Find ways to celebrate success beyond the physical office. If your company hosts a weekly pizza party, figure out new ways to celebrate workers at home.

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