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Telecommuting Likely to Grow, Despite High-Profile Defections
 

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin  7/24/2013
 

Yahoo’s controversial move in early 2013 to bar employees from telecommuting and Best Buy’s subsequently announced decision to limit its work-from-home options may have created the impression that telework is losing favor among U.S. employers.

The practice of working from home or other remote locations has been gaining ground for years, however, and experts don’t expect a stampede of companies to reverse course—or at least they hope that’s not the case. Several forecasts in recent years have predicted continued vigorous expansion in telecommuting.

Supporters cite the advantages, including greater flexibility and work/life balance for employees, savings on commuting time and costs, environmental and energy conservation, lower real estate expenses for companies and, with good management practices, better productivity.

Yes, Better Productivity

“Properly managed telecommuters are more productive than their in-office, full-time compadres. Telecommuters come in to the office when togetherness is necessary, [and] work at home or elsewhere when togetherness is an impediment,” Jack Nilles, CEO of management consulting firm JALA International Inc., wrote on his blog after Yahoo’s move. Nilles, who designed spacecraft and communications systems for the U.S. Air Force and NASA early in his career, is considered the father of teleworking and telecommuting, having coined both terms 40 years ago. He started formally studying the concept in 1973 while director of interdisciplinary research at the University of Southern California.

“They tend to be better organized and focused than their in-office colleagues,” Nilles wrote. “They are more loyal to their employers, take fewer sick leaves and are less stressed. That has been proven repeatedly over the years. They are not slackers or goof-offs.” His views may at least partly counter telecommuting doubters who think remote employees miss creativity-spurring encounters with colleagues. One startup that used electronic badges to monitor bank call-center employees found that a group who spent time together face to face were more productive. Even so, telecommuting experts say that telework need not be an all-or-nothing proposition and that employees can mix remote and onsite work.

Although Yahoo’s decision might influence some companies to rethink their telework policies, Nilles said several large employers he has spoken with weren’t impressed with the tech giant’s telecommuting ban.

 “I hope Yahoo is an outlier. Basically all the evidence I have is that telework is increasingly being adopted just about everywhere,” Nilles said. “The typical office is what I’d call dysfunctional and it has been for a long time, and I don’t particularly see it getting any better.” Studies have found that office workers are interrupted about once every 10 to 15 minutes, “and if you’re trying to concentrate and work out your thoughts on something this is not the place to do it,” he said.

Nilles’ studies reveal that telework allows more creativity and productivity, “although I should add one caveat: Not every information worker … can be a successful telecommuter; it takes self-directedness on the part of the telecommuter and a trust-but-verify outlook on the part of the supervisor.”

Effective Management Required

Others agree that good management is key.

“Remote relationships take more time to manage than those that are not remote, and that’s on both sides,” said consultant and former Society for Human Resource Management Chairman Libby Sartain, SPHR, CCP, principal of Libby Sartain LLC and former chief people officer at Yahoo. Employees have to make sure they’re well-represented and managed.

Telework has its rewards, though, and Sartain said she was disheartened to read about Best Buy paring its remote-working program shortly after Yahoo’s decision became public. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, I hope this is not a trend that is starting.’ ” Many companies, including Gap Inc., have adopted results-only work environment programs like Best Buy’s, and while such programs can be difficult to manage, Sartain hopes companies maintain them.

“Overall, it’s good business and an effective management strategy to make sure that your managers are managing on what counts, because frankly, time and attendance does not equal productivity anyway,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of Mobile Work Exchange, which promotes telework. Most of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For allow telecommuting, she noted.

Because organizations define and measure telework differently, telecommuting statistics vary widely. Generally, analyses show the numbers steadily rising.

Both Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network estimate that 20 million to 30 million Americans work from home at least one day a week. The organization calculated that 3.1 million people, or 2.5 percent of the employee workforce (excluding the self-employed),  consider their home their primary workplace. Statistics show that regular telecommuting in the United States grew 73 percent from 2005 to 2011, although the growth rate slowed during the recession.

Private sector companies account for the bulk of telecommuters, although telework is growing much faster among federal state and nonprofit workers, Global Workplace Analytics reports.

Forrester Research in 2009 found that more than 34 million U.S. adults telecommuted at least occasionally, and predicted the ranks would reach 63 million by 2016, fueled by technology and growing management experience.

Not Just for Women

While Sartain didn’t comment on Yahoo’s decision, she said that when she was at the company, the work-at-home practice allowed the company to hire people with unique, highly desired skills who lived in places where the search-engine giant didn’t have offices.

“A lot of people think of this as a woman’s program, but it’s not always a woman’s program,” said Sartain. If a spouse was transferred, telework allowed the company to keep valued employees of either gender, she said.

Typical teleworkers are 40-year-old male professionals, according to WorldatWork. The group stated in a press release that the Yahoo and Best Buy decisions are temporary exceptions to a global move toward more virtually distributed work.

“I feel like there are still a lot of people figuring out how to do it right,” said Sartain. Some might think telecommuting policies aren’t worth management’s time, she added, but it’s worth trying to get it right, especially for strong talent.

In a March 15, 2013 Harvard Business Review article, author Scott Berkun noted that many companies, such as Automattic Inc.’s WordPress, operate with an entirely “distributed,” or remote, workforce and suggested that before managers abandon the idea of teleworking, they study how other companies have made it work to their advantage.

Yahoo faced a problem with “abuse of remote work, not remote work itself,” he wrote.

Yahoo told the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2013 that its decision to ban working from home reflected what was right for the company and “isn’t a broad industry view on working from home.”

Employees are pushing a trend for more telework in organizations of all sizes, and some workers won’t accept jobs that don’t offer the option, Auten said. “There’s a ton of collaboration out there with video, desktop sharing,” she said, citing an agency that held a lunch meeting and had pizzas delivered to remote workers.

Employees and senior managers often see the value of telecommuting; middle managers, however, don’t always understand the business benefit or how to manage remote workers, she said. While it may not work for everyone, Auten said, management must evaluate, “ ‘Does this work for the person’s job and do I trust them to work in a mobile work environment?’ ”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former newswire reporter for the Associated Press and Dow Jones, is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. 

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