by Aubrey C. Daniels, Founder & Chairman, Aubrey Daniels International
It’s hard to believe that what began in the 80s as an environmental movement is still causing such a stir, especially since it’s been reported that more than 3.5 million Americans working in profit, non-profit and government positions consider home their primary office location. In organizations in which the decision of whether or not to allow an employee to telecommute is made across the board, as was recently reported in the news with Yahoo!, it is not an employee issue but a management one.
It should be assumed that leaders have the best of intentions when they set rules and make proclamations to their employees. For instance, let’s say as a leader you believe that by putting a ban on telecommuting, it will improve collaboration among your employees. While your intention may be to create more opportunities for employees to be physically present to collaborate, bringing them back into the office will not necessarily solve employee performance problems or inspire more successful and effective innovation.
In fact, this may inadvertently reward bad behavior of ineffective supervisors and employees and punish good behavior of the majority of those productively working outside the office.
It’s about performance
The underlying issue comes from the performance of the company. This performance is not caused by people working from home and will not be solved by people working in the office. If you are considering whether or not to allow telecommuting, first consider the performance of those who manage your workforce.
An ineffective manager managing a remote staff is going to be just as ineffective managing them at the office. It is one thing to have a poor manager interact with you occasionally through email, text messages or by phone, but it is quite another to have the manager on your case all the time.
Many organizations manage performance in a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble (negative reinforcement). Typically, these organizations manage by exception, providing consequences for workers’ performance only when it falls below the standard or minimum required.
This approach gets immediate results, but just enough behavior to stop the threats and the potential for other negative consequences in the near future. It suppresses discretionary effort because there’s nothing in it for people to do more than the minimum required.
A better approach is to build in frequent, positive consequences for collaborative and innovative behaviors which will no doubt tap into the discretionary efforts of the workforce. Not only is this good for business, it’s good for the organizational culture and the workforce.
The benefits of positive reinforcement
The only way organizations can earn discretionary effort is through the effective use of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is any consequence that increases the probability of the behavior that it follows. The more likely that people experience positive and immediate consequences for their behavior, the more likely they will be to enjoy what they are doing and gladly go above and beyond the minimum required.
People do it all the time in their personal lives with friends, relatives and in their community organizations and charities. They also do it in organizations skilled in building positive reinforcement into the work and where managers, peers and performance systems support that work process with frequent recognition and other forms of positive reinforcement.
Organizations need managers who understand the science of human behavior and how to apply its principles and methods successfully in the workplace. It is a proven fact that employees who are positively reinforced for their performance will undoubtedly continue to deliver improved performance (i.e. Discretionary Effort).
Discretionary effort is an outcome many talk about, but few truly understand. Organizations looking to increase discretionary effort in their workplace would do well to look first at management behavior and executive decision-making as to what needs to change before deciding that employee behavior is the problem.
Lastly, for organizations who do offer telecommuting, the best way to manage who should or shouldn’t have this privilege is to, assuming the job can be done remotely, set up criteria for people who want to work from home and give them the chance to EARN it. How do you earn it? By delivering high performance over an extended period of time.
A poor performer in the office will be a poorer performer at home. Someone who performs at a high and steady rate in the office will do the same at home if working from home is what the person wants. If people want to work at home, set up the conditions they need to meet to earn that perk and what they need to continue to do to retain it.
While it may be difficult for some jobs to be done at home, Skype and other inventions make it possible for an increasing number of jobs to be done remotely as technologies allow personal interactions (including collaboration), which is necessary in certain jobs.
Until organizations fix poor management and supervisory behaviors, in addition to abandoning across-the-board executive decisions, there will be more changes that employees won’t like--such as increased job pressures and layoffs.
Aubrey Daniels is the world’s foremost authority on applying the scientifically proven laws of human behavior to the workplace. For nearly 35 years, he has worked with companies in nearly all industries, including technology. He also has authored six best-selling books on relevant topics.