Teleworking Anxieties

So far, this week my meetings have centered around extending and encouraging the use of telework amongst the workforce, and the associated discussions of converting workspace to free addressing and hoteling. (I noted that all of these discussions have been face to face).

Although none of these are new concepts in many settings – consultancies in particular have been working in this way for several years. For example Accenture three years ago (2007) was reported as follows:

For Accenture, teleworking is an essential component of its corporate strategy. The company has more than 3,000 employees based in the region. Total seat capacity in its Reston
offices is 1,200, and, on average, 1,100 people come to the office daily, meaning that nearly two-thirds of the company's regionally based workforce telecommute on any given day.

What is less available is the nitty gritty of how do you deal with the anxieties of people being asked to telework when they haven't done it before. There are plenty of seven steps to telework success but there are none that deal with the anxious questions that I'm meeting.

Yesterday I was looking at the floorplan of an office. The workforce is moving there in less than six weeks. The current way of working is: each person has a designated workspace or office, they have all their things around them that make the space feel like home from home, including in some of the offices, refrigerators, coffee machines, and table lamps. Many smaller workspaces are cluttered with assorted gadgets, photos, pictures, plants, flags, radios, plagues, memorabilia, and general stuff. One person was amazed to find she had 12 pairs of shoes under her desk. She'd no idea till she looked.

Additionally very few of this workforce teleworks, and several managers are very resistant to the idea of not being able to see the physical presence of 'their' people.

The floor plan, and the unit head, decree no assigned space, only one under surface pedestal unit and one coat locker per person, with limited shared filing space. No electrical items can be brought to the new office, and no personal items that can't be packed and stored in the pedestal or locker.

Further, the unit head wants as many people as possible to telework so that he can release space back to other parts of the organization.

There are thousands of question being asked ranging from 'what about my chair?' and 'can I keep my special keyboard?' To 'how will my manager know I'm working if I'm not in the office?" I get the impression that people feel they are being evacuated with no idea how to survive in the wilderness of a new office with just their work tools (computer, BB, shared printers, VOIP phones) to hang on to.

In some ways this is understandable – people do like the security blanket of personalization. Even going to a hotel room people will bring items that help them feel at home – their own alarm clock, or special pillow. But I'm not clear why there's such anxiety about the hygiene factor of chair sharing. Do people not go to restaurants, ride buses, sit on bar stools? I've not yet seen in any of those situations people taking out sanitizing wipes and spray cans of disinfectant to clean the chair before sitting on it – which people are suggesting in the current situation is the only way they will contemplate sitting in an office chair that is not 'theirs'.

Planning in this somewhat fraught situation means answering questions like:

• How do we reduce the chair anxiety? (One response is to suggest they try out teleworking)

• Where will people's two crates be delivered – to an assigned seat – which then may become 'theirs' or to a numbered locker?'

• What happens on day 1? Do we give people a seat saying this is for day 1 only. On day two they will have to book a seat? (Assuming the book system is alive and kicking)?

• Do people to telework from day 1 so that a proportion don't physically turn up on the first day?

• Do we assign people to a 'neighborhood' on the floorplate?

• What protocols do we need to suggest around real or virtual availability e.g. core hours? Notifying people where you are, etc.

• Do we need a slow ramp up or a cold turkey approach?

Today's meetings will start to iron all of these issues out. For many colleagues who've worked for years in other organizations that are well advanced down the teleworking what they're seeing in those that haven't is entirely amazing. One person said to me he used, fairly regularly, to get an email saying something on the lines of 'you're moving office on Monday, please leave your crates packed in the loading area and they'll be in floor area A when you next come into the office.' However, for people who have never moved offices this is a sea change, and if you're not used to swimming and are being thrown in at the deep end it's not totally surprising that it's alarming.