Maximize telework benefits by overcoming communications barriers

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By Sara Lamason, FEMA Integrated Communications Branch

When Marissa Meyer, Yahoo Chief Executive, abolished the company’s telework program, it brought many of telework programs’ lessons learned into the public spotlight – namely the cost associated when communication and teamwork break down. We saw this as an opportunity to identify and address the potential barriers to productivity facing the FEMA Workplace Transformation initiative: how to ensure accountability for teleworkers’ productivity and outputs.

In the recent article, Communicating Effectively With a Virtual Team, I indicated that there can be communication challenges when working and managing in a virtual environment, especially when it comes to keeping track of  everyone’s work.  In the office, casual encounters allow for impromptu project updates. In a telework environment, interactions and meetings have to be planned and scheduled.

Based on the best management practices and lessons learned from other organizations, managers and employees can proactively circumvent the communications roadblock by recognizing there is not a “one size fits all solution” and tailoring telework plans to establish:

  1. Expectations: Take the time to develop tangible, outcome-oriented expectations and communications policies for each telework agreement. Change or initiate blended meetings where conferenced attendees and in-office attendees can effectively collaborate for the desired outcome from the meeting.
  2. Check-Ins: Establish a schedule. How frequently will the teleworker speak with manager and team? How will he/she check-in? i.e. phone, video chat, etc. Use the check-ins to provide updates and clearly define deliverables and timelines. The phone calls should take place with greater frequency in the beginning and ease off as things move along.
  3. Standardized Information Sharing: How should work be shared? If using SharePoint, ensure that your site is set up and everyone knows how to access and use it.

As we edge closer to turning into a mobile-centric organization, it is important to retain part of the human element lost when we’re not in the office. Do not limit communications to emails and instant messages, employees and managers need to pick up the phone! The phone remains the effective two-way communication tool for ensuring understanding and aligning expectations for remote employees.

Managers, it is not unusual for an employee to become more productive when teleworking.  This does not mean that managers should change work assignments among  employees, nor change  expectations of  performance standards. Telework does not change an employee’s job responsibilities. It just changes where the work gets done. If you do notice that a teleworker has been able to produce more, be sure to compliment the teleworker that the extra effort is noticed.

The need for a different communication approach extends beyond expectation management; it is my goal to maintain an open dialogue as we move forward in this effort. For further guidance, please visit Tools and Resources for the Mobile Workforce and the Enterprise Service Desk Resource Toolkit. With any change of this magnitude, some solutions may require refinement and unexpected challenges may arise, therefore, we need to openly encourage review of telework practices and welcome suggestions for improvement.

As FEMA’s operational mission to communities expands with a more mobile workforce, office space and administrative budgets are shrinking considerably. Workplace Transformation is fiscally prudent and allows FEMA to invest in people to ensure mission success, while earning public trust and confidence through stewardship and performance.

Take a look at the move schedule for the National Capital Region and as always I ask that you please submit questions and suggestions to the mailbox.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 
07/24/2014 - 16:00
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