Telecommuting: When Does it Make Sense?

Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer recently declared that her company’s employees may no longer work from home and this has created quite a stir—both inside and outside of the company.

Telecommuting offers many benefits as it removes wasted time travelling back and forth to the job; it provides employees the flexibility to balance work and family around the individual’s schedule; and because there may be fewer interruptions than in the workplace, it allows for more focused attention that can lead to increased productivity.

Telecommuting also raises employee engagement. The more flexibility workers have, the higher their job satisfaction and the less likely they are to leave the company.

Research has found that they also work harder. A 2010 Brigham Young University study found that office employees work only 38 hours a week before they feel as if they’re neglecting their home lives. People who work from home put in up to 57 hours before they feel stretched too thin.

Nearly 15,000 Yahoos currently enjoy the freedom to do their jobs from home. And according to the independent employment research firm Telework Research Network, 20 million to 30 million Americans currently work from home at least once a week.

So what do we know about these telecommuters? According to the above study updated in 2011, the typical telecommuter is 49 years old, college educated, a salaried non-union employee in a management or professional role, earns $58,000 a year, and works for a company with more than 100 employees.

If all the potential telecommuters worked from home just half the time, the national savings would total over $700 billion a year including:

  • The typical business would save $11,000 per person per year
  • Telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year
  • The oil savings would equate to over 37% of our Persian Gulf imports
  • Greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the entire five-year cost of implementing telework throughout government ($30 million) would be less than a third of the cost of lost productivity from a single day shutdown of federal offices in Washington DC due to snow ($100 million).

So why can’t telecommuting continue at Yahoo? The answer could be manifold and surely includes Mayer’s need to reboot the company culture, cut deadwood and discipline the slackers who have taken advantage of the work at home policy.

Mayer was one of Google’s first 20 employees where data is used to measure just about everything, including people analytics. Now that Mayer is running Yahoo, she may be trying to instill this data-driven methodology to increase productivity, even if it means upsetting the company culture to do so.

While Google generates a whopping $931,657 in revenue per worker, Yahoo generates just $344,758. And Google actually encourages their employees to work in the office because, among other things, they say it generates a more collaborative atmosphere.

High technology companies have long been on the leading edge not only in products and services, but also in flexible work hours and employee benefits. Instilling the Results Only Work Ethic or ROWE model, for example, makes it easy to justify employees working whenever and from wherever they choose.

But there is something to be said for people working in the same physical space where serendipitous interactions can help stir creativity and innovation like nothing else. Bell Labs long ago designed their campuses around the management philosophy that innovation happens when you force smart people to collaborate in person where they can constantly bounce creative ideas off each other.

So how do you enable the benefits of telecommuting while retaining those of working in the office?

A Rational Telecommuting Policy would include:

  • Identify which jobs lend themselves to telecommuting. Those who work in the fast food industry certainly can’t telecommute. However, those who work in certain types of sales and customer service who need only a computer with a telephone certainly could.
  • Determine how to track and measure performance. Like any job, we should measure employee effectiveness in ways beyond how often they sit in an office cubicle and stare at a computer screen. Data can’t measure everything, but it can certainly contribute to overall accountability. This should be monitored regularly to avoid problems.
  • Hold telecommuters responsible. Anyone who regularly works away from the office like outside sales people need to check in frequently to make themselves visible. Telecommuters need to do this as well and keep up with virtual communication so they remain top of mind to coworkers and supervisors.
  • Demand that telecommuters be in the office on a regular basis. This is important because of the necessity of building rapport and fostering trust that is so vital to effective team building as well as increase the opportunities for collaboration and serendipitous creativity to spur innovation. Maybe it’s two days a week or maybe one day every two weeks, but consistency is key so others can plan around it.

Telecommuting offers many benefits to individuals, their families, the organization, and the environment. It’s not going to go away and I suspect Yahoo’s Mayer will find a way to bring it back to certain employees.

In the end I believe companies need to give employees the flexibility to work away from the office, yet measure and hold them accountable for the work they need to do. At the same time, they should demand that these employees work in the office at least part of the time, because this strengthens teamwork and encourages collaboration. And that’s good for the organization.

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About Mark Craemer
Craemer Consulting specializes in workplace communication, organization development and leadership coaching.

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