Guest Post: Telework vs. Troglodytes

(While I’m on vacation, my friend, Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress, it taking over blogging duties for this week.  Enjoy!)

Lately, it seems like everyone’s talking telework.

In the public sector, Congress has passed a series of laws designed to get employees out of the cubicle. In the private sector, the Society for Human Resources Management recently reported there has been a small increase in employers offering telecommuting on a full-time basis. Another recent study shows that the vast majority of leaders and managers intellectually grasp the business case for telework: it’s green; it cuts costs; it improves health outcomes, productivity, and engagement. We also know that today’s technology (including security protection) is sophisticated enough to support work wherever it takes place.

Sounds like a whole bunch of teleworking must be going on all across the land, right? Well, not quite.

According to my triangulation of the numbers from several disparate reports, somewhere between 6 – 8% of the Federal workforce and approximately 10 – 12% of all non-self-employed U.S. employees are teleworking at least one day per month. Not exactly a steady diet, and anything but a groundswell.

If this strikes you as underwhelming, that’s precisely the key message of WorldatWork’s Special Report, Telework 2011. For the first time in the nine years we’ve been monitoring the telework trend line, the number of employed Americans who worked remotely at least one day a month dropped between 2008 and 2010. This decline was relatively small—just shy of 6%—but it follows years of gains.

In spite of all the attention being paid to the merits of telework, there has been a surprisingly low uptake in something so powerful that it can simultaneously make people feel healthier, work more productively and reduce expenses.  If this were a piece of software, it would be selling like hot cakes, no matter what the price.  But the product is not the problem. People are the problem.

Not all people. Just the troglodytes among us. You know who I’m talking about. If you haven’t ever worked for (or with) one, you know someone who does. You’ve already refreshed your memory via, so let me hasten to skip over “prehistoric cave dweller” and skip right to my favorite part, which cites a slang word from 1956, “trog,” meaning:

A person unacquainted with affairs of the world, devoid of a single progressive idea and lacking the slightest awareness of social and cultural advances.

The path to job autonomy is an obstacle course populated by trogs who throw out an endless variety of challenges and objections, many of which are contradictory and unsubstantiated.

How do I know you’re working if I can’t see you?

We tried that once and it didn’t work.

I gave up everything for this job and you will, too.

Only slackers are interested in this sort of thing!

The trogs’ complaints go on and on. I’ve been in the work-life field for more than 20 years, and the chorus of trogs has never disappeared. Every new advance in telework research or policy is met by a chorus of naysayers. Sometimes the trogs are even
in organizations that were once recognized as trailblazers in workplace flexibility but have come under new leadership.

So where do we go from here, realizing that we may be losing ground, even if temporarily?  I have three ideas:

1) We’ll get there. We have to keep our collective eye on the Big Picture, to paraphrase the futurist Mary O’Hara-Devereaux. Her metaphor of navigating through a rugged transition zone between the now obsolete Industrial era to a new set of values, practices and structures strikes me as both prophetic and comforting.  We will get to the other side, but the journey is going to continue to be uneven and occasionally painful.

2) It’s up to you. If those who work want more control over the conditions of their work, they are going to have to exert the courage to make that happen. Research can be done and policies can be put in place, but in the end, each person has to make it happen for themselves.

3) Expose the trogs for the out-of-touch obstructionists they are. You can’t assume those designated as “in charge” will do this for you, because, as you probably know, sometimes they are the trogs. If there are people in your business putting up roadblocks to telework, it may be time to start proving your case by showing them just how well it can work.

The good news is that no one in a business context actually intends (or can afford) to be a troglodyte. They may be scared of new ideas, but when they see them start to work, they convert themselves like transformers. And remember that trogs are in the minority, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. They are simply adept at making a lot of attention-grabbing noise.  Most people around you are also struggling to make their job fit with their life, so you can safely recruit them as allies.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Telework vs. Troglodytes

  1. This is a clever description of a persistent problem. I appreciate the big picture long-term view of #1, and sing the same “It’s up to you” tune along with you (#2) for getting individual near-term results.

  2. Thank you for this great article. Love the concrete steps we can take and the mentality we can maintain to be change makers at the workplace. We also considered a similar topic of talking about flexibility with an employer. Will definitely share this article with our readers!

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