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.
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
- when to use which medium for communication - email,
phone, conferencing, etc
- 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
- effective reporting
- understanding how to identify signs of stress,
depression or isolation in a remote worker, and methods
for dealing with these
- 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
- 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
|Using applications effectively
- Using basic office applications - email, Office
applications, etc - to their full potential
- Using applications remotely and collaboratively with
|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
|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
- Understanding and following back-up procedures and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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.