Two major employers’ recent announcements that they were banning off-site work arrangements have raised an intriguing question: Is telecommuting a good thing or not?
Alas, the answer appears to be: It depends.
As you know, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently eliminated the company’s work-from-home policy. One week later, Best Buy followed suit.
Many wondered if the decisions made by Yahoo and Best Buy are signs that telecommuting – an increasingly popular incentive for many firms – is waning in acceptance.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case: Four out of five HR pros said they offer some form of telecommuting for employees – and 97% of those firms have no plans to eliminate the benefit. That’s according to a new survey from Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Plus, telecommuting continues to grow in popularity. Nearly 10% of U.S. workers worked from home at least one day a week in 2010, according to a recently released U.S. Census Bureau report. That’s up from 7% in 1997.
It’s not hard to see why employers consider telecommuting: It saves on overhead.
There are perks for employees, too. Numerous studies have found that telecommuting can:
- increase employee satisfaction
- decrease turnover (and, therefore, recruiting and training costs), and
- decrease absenteeism.
At the same time, many managers still have issues with managing telecommuters: A recent MIT study found that many managers look favorably on employees who put in more face time at the office.
Making the decision
So how can you tell if telecommuting is right for you?
A few common-sense issues to put to rest:
First and foremost, can the job be done remotely? Obviously, some positions require the person to be in the workplace. You’re not going to let the janitorial staff work from home.
Can the person be managed remotely? A much trickier concern. Self-starters are naturally the people most likely to succeed working from home, but it’s possible that with proper supervision, those people who need a little nudge to get things done can perform satisfactorily, too. The question is, is the extra supervision worth the manager’s time?
What about collaboration? Lots of jobs require face time with colleagues; if that’s a key part of making the operation successful, then telecommuting’s out. But a lot of collaboration can be achieved through today’s electronic avenues like email and IMing.
A few more questions to ask yourself:
- Can managers judge performance on results only? This requires both supervisors and employees to agree on clear expectations and goals as well as acceptable ways to communicate on a daily basis. That’s no easy task.
- Do your employees want to work from home? Everyone wants to work from home if they can, right? Not necessarily. Some employees simply prefer to work in the office. Think about how much you’d get done at home if you have small children — even if you have a nanny. The key: Make telecommuting an option, not a requirement.
- Are you prepared to stay on top of the legal requirements? Having non-exempt staffers work from home raises a number of potential issues regarding wage-and-hour and overtime claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The cultural divide
There are a number of workplace culture concerns that inevitably come with telecommuting territory.
First is a kind of knee-jerk distrust on the part of old-school managers and execs: “Having a job means showing up at the office. I’m not sure I can trust an employee who’s invisible.”
And managing telecommuters is a different deal, too. Workers aren’t around for informal discussions of workplace issues, or ways to do things more efficiently. Face time is limited, at best.
And employee engagement can certainly be adversely affected by working remotely. Without a real effort on their supervisors’ part, telecommuters can easily begin to feel isolated and out of the loop.
That can lead to the old, “Hey, I’m doing my job every day. If they want something more from me, they can ask.” Not exactly the engaged, committed attitude that fosters the atmosphere of innovation and cooperation you’re looking for.