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Training for e-Work

Getting it right, keeping it flexible

Success in developing "Information Age" flexible work - otherwise known as e-work - is put at risk if staff and managers are not properly prepared.  Changes in the way the organisation works, and changes in the culture of work, need to be accompanied by a flexible but systematic approach to upgrading skills across the e-working workforce.

But what does this mean in practice?

Training - about what?

To make e-work succeed, people often think it's only a question of working confidently with the technologies.  But there is a range of other issues that people need to learn about.  We may summarise these as:

Communication and supervision
  • how to keep in touch when out of sight
  • understanding new reporting procedures
  • effective electronic sharing of work
  • how to keep track of employees' work and workloads - without being intrusive or overbearing
  • developing new team-building techniques for distributed teams
  • when to use which medium for communication - email, phone, conferencing, etc
Time management
  • becoming more self-reliant for time management
  • understanding the time requirements of the job - e.g. is availability to colleagues and clients essential at certain times?
  • managing workloads (managers)
  • running scheduling applications remotely
Health and safety
  • understanding the requirements for health & safety on the move and in the home office
  • knowing what to expect from the employer and from the employee
  • effective reporting
  • understanding how to identify signs of stress, depression or isolation in a remote worker, and methods for dealing with these
Career progression
  • ensuring e-workers remain "in the loop" for promotion and project opportunities (managers, HR)
  • maintaining a visible presence, without badgering everyone to death with emails (staff)
  • ensuring access to training/personal development opportunities
Home-working issues
  • how to manage the home-work interface, if working from  or closer to home
  • preventing bad habits developing - like impulse web surfing, excessive snacking, etc
  • understanding any legal, tax and insurance issues that may arise

Clearly, some of the above apply more for managers, and some apply more to the individual employee.  All of them are relevant to HR managers, particularly those charged with developing training opportunities. But where e-work brings greater autonomy, there is also likely to be a greater expectation of self-management, and a greater responsibility on the individual to alert managers to their training needs 

There is a need also for technology-related training. This we can summarise as:

Using applications effectively
  • Using basic office applications - email, Office applications, etc - to their full potential
  • Using applications remotely and collaboratively with workflow options
Understanding remote and mobile technologies
  • Understanding the IT and telecommunications options (managers and IT/telecoms specialists)
  • Maintaining optimal IT environment
  • Being able to synchronise home-based and portable systems
Accessing company systems
  • Knowing how to access the company networks remotely, from anywhere/from designated workplaces
Security and information back-up
  • Understanding security needs and and how to use the appropriate technologies
  • Understanding and following back-up procedures and protocols

This list is intended primarily for users of IT. But there is also a range of training issues here for IT specialists, who need to develop new skills for working with the new technologies.

Levels of learning

For each of these areas above, there are different levels of learning required, which we might call Getting the Basics, Getting Serious, and Keeping It Going.

Level 1: Getting the Basics

The basic entry level is about raising awareness of the issues involved.  This is the kind of training that can be handled in seminars and short workshops, and is aimed at managers in organisations that are proposing to move into e-work, and teams of staff selected for pilot projects.  Training should aim at addressing typical concerns - this is to some extent covered in the Flexibility article on Raising Awareness.

There is also usually a need for an audit of skills and training needs - which may be a more or less formal process.  People are often able to operate quite happily using only a fraction of the capabilities of an IT application, and may be able to get away with it in an environment which is largely paper-based, and where they can push final editing of documents onto support staff and more IT-aware colleagues.  Or they may habitually lean over to ask colleagues how to do something, without ever internalising the learning in a systematic way. 

Improving confidence with IT and becoming more familiar with online processes is important, and often the best time to tackle limitations in this area is before e-work starts in earnest.

For decision-makers, there are important aspects of knowledge-raising that need to occur before key decisions, including procurement decisions, are made.  This does also apply to IT and telecommunications managers.  They may be good at what they have historically been doing, but there is no guarantee that they will be at the forefront of understanding about internet technologies or wireless communications, for example. So it is important that senior managers have a framework for understanding the issues, and can assess the recommendations of consultants and the in-house information professionals.

Level 2: Getting Serious

Training for e-work needs to take place in a specific context. There are some generic courses available of the "training for telework" variety, offered by FE colleges and training companies. These may be of value (though even this is doubtful) to an individual looking to boost his or her employability. To an organisation changing the way people work they will have no practical benefit.

As can be seen from a glance at the checklists above, the training requirements and the development of new policies, processes and procedures need to go hand in hand. It is of limited value knowing how to "do e-work" in the abstract. Training needs a specific context. What managers and staff need to focus on is how to use the systems that are being implemented, and knowing what kind of online activity is allowable in their organisation and what is bad practice.

The particulars will vary from one organisation to another, or from one team to another.  For example, there will be a lot of differences between the technologies, procedures and time requirements for a home-based "virtual call-centre" team compared to a team of field workers who work at a variety of locations - home, main office, client sites, in transit, etc. Communications, reporting and scheduling issues will differ greatly between teams that work mostly out of the office, and those who may be out of the office only one or two days per week.

Training involves induction into use of any new technologies, familiarisation with policy, and getting to grips with new systems and business processes. A mixture of workshop-based group work is recommended at the outset, supported by e-learning techniques to provide maximum flexibility and keeping the costs low.

Experience also shows that additional support may be needed for technophobes and recidivists - people who need extra encouragement to wave goodbye to their paper memos and scribbled notes to secretaries.

It may be that the in-house training team at the outset needs some support from experts who have been involved in a number of e-work implementations to help develop and deliver training and online learning materials. Taking this route may save time, help to target training more effectively, and prevent investing a great deal of time in "reinventing the wheel".

Level 3: Keeping it Going

Just like Rome, the perfect e-workforce won't be built in a day. Training will need to continue, not least for new recruits.

For a more dispersed workforce, and one where higher degrees of autonomy are being encouraged, e-learning solutions have particular merits. E-learning can incorporate both synchronous and non-synchronous learning.

Synchronous learning includes techniques such as using a "virtual classroom", where a number of students are networked with a remote tutor in real time, using conferencing technologies, virtual whiteboards, etc.

Asynchronous techniques can include tutor-led learning (via email, discussion boards, etc) but also a wider range of self-help learning. In a business context, self-help learning, whether formal (in the sense that learning achievements are tracked and certificated) or informal, can be especially valuable.  E-workers are likely to need to solve specific problems, where online nuggets of wisdom rather than half-day seminars, are required.

For a large organisation, there are significant cost advantages in e-learning approaches. While requiring initial up-front investment in producing learning materials and processes, and training the trainers, in the longer-term there are major cost-savings to be gained. This case study from Cisco outlines the benefits and Return on Investment they have achieved through e-learning.

In an ideal world, an e-learning strategy needs to be linked into a knowledge management strategy. In an office setting, what is often most valued is the amount of informal knowledge exchange between colleagues. Much of this is in essence informal training, as colleagues acquire skills from each other in a non-systematic way. In an e-work environment it is to be hoped that colleagues won't give up talking to each other - whether meeting, talking on the phone, conferencing or emailing. All the same, there is a need to for this kind of informal learning to be gathered in and made available online, and accessible wherever people are learning.

In this respect, the development of a system of mentoring is advisable, so that there is a corps of highly skilled people to whom people can turn. In some organisations, it is assumed that the IT helpdesk can deal with most practical issues arising from e-work. But there are two different functions involved here - mending IT on the one hand, and on the other learning how to use it for business purposes.

In surveys about flexible work in general, and e-work in particular, workers often register high levels of concern about slipping off the company radar, and being left out of promotion and training opportunities. E-workers don't only need training about e-work, but also access to all other training opportunities - whether management training, diversity training, customer service or whatever. E-work and e-learning offer new opportunities for advertising and delivering "regular" training, too.

E-work help isn't the same as IT help

Some firms expect e-work support to come from the IT helpdesk. IT helpdesks are mainly there to troubleshoot. Things you know how to do aren't working, so you phone the helpdesk. They give you a job number, and tell you to turn your machine off and on again.

What they don't normally do is provide you with the support you need for improving your mastery of applications. IT specialists (and your helpdesk operator may not even be that) are usually people who can install software, screw bits into your computer, string up networks and the like. But as for actually using the applications successfully for business - you probably know more than they do.

So I'd warmly recommend setting up an e-work help service as part of your training delivery - one that operates as a friendly and responsive service delivering troubleshooting advice, bite-sized chunks of practical training, and offering mentoring for e-work pilots and neophytes.

In all the talk about the benefits of new technology, we always need to pause and consider the human factors.

Are people ready for e-work? What else do they need to know? How is your organisation going to approach developing the relevant new skills in your workforce?

This article builds on our mini-series on Doing Flexible Work - Being an E-Manager and The E-Team, and looks at the training issues involved in developing e-work.

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