A friend (let’s call him Bob) who manages IT services in a financial institution is faced with a peculiar problem. His organisation is moving to smaller premises and they want some of their employees to work from home (that is, telecommute) and have put out a general call to all employees to respond with their preferences.

Now, most people I know would jump at this and so did Puja (as we shall call her), a member of Bob’s team. But Bob does not want her to and is scheming to make her change her mind!

Bob worries about the extra work for him; he needs to plan more, and there could be work delays. The others in his team will continue to come to the office. Bob feels that the work assignment practices will have to change, and when he wants something done right away, he cannot give it to Puja, for that would mean packaging the issue, emailing it to her, clarifying the requirements, and then awaiting a response, and so on. It is going to require him to plan more. Now, he just leans across from his office and briefs her, and can keep peeping into her cubicle regularly to clarify doubts and hasten the work.

He’s tried telling Puja all this and has hinted that some kinds of assignments she would love to work on may not come her way, if he finds somebody else who is around and can quickly deal with it.

Puja would love to save the three-hour commute time. And the organisation itself is encouraging employees to work from home and assuring them it would not hurt their prospects. On the latter, we can’t be so sure.

Measuring performance

Lots of companies have moved down this route of getting some employees to telecommute. It saves them expensive office space, besides other overheads. If you are at home, you are paying the electricity bill and drinking your own coffee.

Initially, employees were worried if the lack of ‘face time’ will hurt them. Human resource management systems incorporated ways to evaluate remote work. The nature of many kinds of work became more measurable. Large organisations such as IBM even developed systems where they reserved a few cubicles and telecommuting employees would reserve desk space for the hours they visited office.

The telecommuting bonus for the organisation was when the employees work across time zones. Then, the organisation really gets more than its money’s worth, for the employee is up early in the morning on a conference call dealing with one time zone and up late in the night on another call dealing with another time zone, and working several hours in between! The organisation pays for one, gets the work of at least two in the process and proudly claims that it has raised employee productivity.

But this can take a toll on the employees’ personal life and, in turn, affect work quality. Carmel and Espinosa wrote a book on how to better manage work across different time zones (I’m working while they are sleeping, Nedder Stream Press, 2011).

They look at both individual and work issues and how a smart manager can break-up and schedule the work in such a way that it mitigates problems and enhances efficiencies. It is more than simple ‘time management,’ they say. And when you mix time zone differences with telecommuting, you can imagine the complexity of planning and executing the work.

Making an impression

And there is the important issue of whether the employee’s evaluations are affected. We are all familiar with the employee who sits late in office pretending that he is working, just to impress the bosses. Apparently it works! In an article published in the Sloan Management Review, Elsbach and Cable (Why showing your face at work matters, Summer 2012) call it ‘passive’ face time.

Simply being seen at work, arriving early or leaving late, makes an impression. Managers, unintentionally, make evaluations taking such factors into account. So the smart telecommuter, if local, would do well to walk into the office on a regular basis just to be seen.

Clearly, having objective measures of performance will help, but as my friend Bob worries, it is going to change the way he is assigning work, and that may not be good for Puja. Bob, a vehement anti-telecommuter, argues that communicating work through email has other problems that nobody recognises. There is a lot of mis-communication in how people write and they may not convey the right requirements, the right sense of urgency, and so on, in the words they use.

There is a constant back and forth just to understand what is required. When you put together in a telecommunicating team people with differential comprehension of English, you can well imaging the mayhem that can ensue. Let’s wait till someone researches this and tells us how much it is costing in terms of productivity.

The boss effect

Scientists at the University of California at San Diego have investigated further implications of the ‘boss effect,’ — how the social pressures from status and power affects our neurobiology. Apparently, if we feel personally powerful, we tend not to smile back when we see another person who we think is equally powerful smiling. Competition!

If we feel powerless, we tend to copy everyone else’s smile. Thus, one’s sense of status makes us reciprocate another person’s smile. If you are going to work from home, the boss is not going to see you smile when you see him or her. So, get onto Skype regularly and smile at your boss. Also, remember to laugh loudly at the boss’ jokes during conference calls. But don’t forget to minutely record all your contributions and accomplishments and send the record to the boss before your next performance review.

(The author is professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston, US. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on November 6, 2012)
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