Debate on Telework Policies Should Focus on Management Practices

By Bill Leonard Mar 20, 2013

Recent decisions to curtail telecommuting at Yahoo and Best Buy have stirred up spirited debate on the future of work-from-home programs. While much of the discussion has centered on the business case for telework policies, business leaders struggling with the issue should focus more on how to effectively manage employees who work remotely, according to experts on the topic.

“It is pretty clear that telecommuting is a trend that is growing and points to the direction of how and where we work in the future,” said Damon Lovett, senior consultant for KnowledgeSource Consulting in Dallas. “Problems with telecommuting typically point to a management issue and not a failure of a policy.”

Telecommuters Shouldn’t Feel Entitled

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to end the Internet services company’s telecommuting program, an internal e-mail about the policy change was leaked, and the reaction to the decision from the company’s telecommuters was not favorable, according to a source close to the company, who asked not to be identified.

The negative reaction was partly due to a sense of entitlement among Yahoo’s telecommuters, the source said. To manage telecommuting programs properly, employers must clearly explain that telework is not a right, and set expectation levels for performance from the start, several sources familiar with the issue recommended.

“People should not feel that they are entitled to be able to work from home,” said Johnny Laurent, vice president and general manager of Sage Employer Solutions in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It has to be clear that it is a privilege which must be earned and maintained through consistent and strong work performance. It’s very important that goals are set and that these objectives are met or exceeded by the telecommuters.”

In recent years, Yahoo has gone through quite a bit of management upheaval, and sources agree it’s obvious that many of the executives and managers had lost control of the company’s telecommuting program. In some cases the teleworking employees had no idea to whom they were reporting and had never met their supervisor in person.

Avoiding ‘Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind Syndrome ’

Yahoo’s situation, Lovett said, should serve as a reminder to managers to reach out and engage their remote workforce.

“Someone who telecommutes can easily fall into the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “Open communications, weekly meetings via a teleconference and occasional trips to the office for some face time work pretty well, and managers should be prepared to take an extra step to keep remote workers in the loop. Teleworking isn’t for everyone, but with the right attitude and the right communication tools in place, telecommuters can be just as, if not more, productive than workers who come to the office every day.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.​


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