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.

Three Rules of Thumb for Connecting in the Virtual Workplace

[Guest Columnist: Today’s post is written by Kyle Lagunas, an HR analyst at Software Advice.]

The modern organization has changed—it is decentralized and increasingly virtual. For decades, “The HP Way,” which advocates “managing by walking around,” was a prime example of how to run an organization. But as the workforce continues to become more mobile, the constraints of a structured nine-to-five schedule are becoming a thing of the past.

Your employee handbook says you have an open door policy, but in an increasingly virtual workplace, employees are not seeking to enter a physical office. As such, most open door policies are more metaphorical.

Employees want to reach you via chat, email, and collaboration platforms. There are several ways even the busiest leaders can chat, check in, and connect with their workforce, though you may not be familiar or entirely comfortable with them. With the right tools and the right attitude, though, you can breathe new life into your open door policy—and strengthen your employee relations.

Talking to employees face-to-face is one thing, but when you’re connecting with them online, the rules are a bit different. “Team spirit and a sense of shared mission are easily lost,” warns David Freedman, technology columnist for the New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog. Rather than jumping in head first, there a few rules of thumb to consider when connecting online:

1. Relax Informal check-ins are more comfortable for employees. A casual hello-how-are-you can offer an excellent opportunity for leaders to coach employees and get valuable feedback from them. When communications from leadership are limited to formal, unidirectional messaging, there’s not going to be a whole lot of meaningful dialogue occurring.

Chat clients are a simple solution for quick communications with your team. Some of us are familiar with this media, but others might struggle with the conversational tone, lowercase letters and lack of punctuation. Keep things short and respond quickly. The point here is that you’re making yourself available and approachable.

 2. You don’t have to be a tech guru If you’re not super savvy when it comes to technology, don’t sweat it. Your organization may already have tools in place and you shouldn’t be afraid to try your hand at them. In fact, your leading by example can encourage employees to dig deeper into the technology your organization makes available to them.

“Whatever your style is as a leader, find the tool that you are most comfortable with, and then go with it,” says Lori Knowlton SVP of HR at HomeAway. The important thing is to find the tool that suits you and suits your company.

3. Onboard your team Rally your team to a common communications and collaboration platform, and make sure they use it. The more people you have using the same tool to communicate, the easier it is to connect with them. Over time, the value of everyone working together on one system will make it a critical part of their routine.

HomeAway finds social collaboration tools like Yammer to be incredibly useful for fostering personable communication and dynamic collaboration across the organization. “We’ve seen a tremendous adoption across the organization,” says Knowlton. The vibrant company culture at HomeAway is a major contributor to their steady growth and success, and the value of this degree of buy-in is self-evident.

Interacting Critical, Tools Helpful
Interaction with a good boss is critical to realizing your full potential as an employee. With the right tools, keeping tabs on your people and your organization can become a part of your regular workflow. Go forth and dabble in a few different products until you find the right one, keeping in mind that many tools are free at their most basic level.

Kyle Lagunas is an HR analyst at Software Advice who reports on trends and best practices in learning and talent management systems.

Educating to be Creative in the Workplace

Though my young children are years away from entering the workforce, I can’t help but be concerned with whether they will actually have the skills necessary to compete for jobs when they enter it.

These kids currently attend good public schools and are getting fine grades. But the knowledge they acquire there and in college may no longer be sufficient alone.

In a previous post, I described the challenges of thriving in the knowledge economy. Tony Wagner, education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” says there are three basic skills students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to communicate effectively; the ability to collaborate; and the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving.

Sir Ken Robinson, author of the book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative,” says that in addition to communication and collaboration, creativity is also greatly missing in education. I would offer that critical thinking and problem solving actually require a great deal of creativity.

While better communication skills and the ability to work together effectively are vitally important and also the primary focus of my consulting work, I believe this lack of creativity is what may be holding back not only our workers, but perhaps our entire country from fully competing in this new economy.

The U.S. education system—and those of most other countries—focus primarily on language (reading and writing), mathematics, and science. This begins in elementary school and continues well into college. But how well are educational institutions addressing the need for improved communication, collaboration and creativity?

The answer seems to be not very well. Organizations are continually trying to find qualified job candidates who can effectively communicate, work well with others, and innovate to meet competitive pressures.

Being able to communicate well involves not only being a competent speaker, listener, reader and writer, but also the ability to read nuances found in body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and other nonverbal signals. These are things not taught in schools, but they can be learned by most of us as we interact with others.

My elementary school children are regularly learning to collaborate in ways I never imagined back when I was a student. They no longer sit at individual desks, but instead sit at tables with three or more and work together in most of their subject areas. This early collaboration should serve them well when they enter the workforce.

With regard to creativity, however, this may be another matter altogether. The fact is our country provides very little funding to educate students in art, music, drama and dance, and we continually stifle children’s ability to express their own creativity in other ways. This can include how they express themselves in writing, how they determine the best approach to solving a math problem, and thinking of a new hypothesis for science.

Creativity ultimately requires a willingness to make mistakes and be wrong, which are the very things schools often discourage most. When the goal is primarily if not entirely to get each student to answer a test question correctly, this avenue to creativity is no longer of value.

Every year companies spend millions of dollars training employees to be more creative, but this has so far had little success. These very same employees were originally hired because they achieved academic success from institutions where this creativity was stifled.

Learning to be and remain creative requires a great deal of humility and willpower. One must have a thick skin in order to regularly make mistakes, look foolish, and still persevere. This is necessary in order to innovate and find creative solutions that will enable us to compete in the world economy.

Hiring managers would be wise to look beyond candidates with high academic achievements and relevant experience to ask them where they took a big risk and what they learned from the outcome. They should also try to tease out whether candidates are able to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions to problems.

And if the company wants workers to develop curiosity and imagination, then that company must accept that there will be missteps, mistakes, and bad decisions along the way. This is a part of learning and an essential part of being creative. Only then, through this trial and error process, can workers and companies embrace the benefits of creativity for problem solving and innovation.

Social Networks Bottom-line Benefits Require Employee Focus

Companies embracing social networks both internally and externally appear to be achieving bottom-line benefits, but this requires more than technology. It also means empowering employees at every level to make decisions and provide them with more flexibility in how to solve problems.

According to recent findings by McKinsey & Company, a new class of company is emerging that uses collaborative Web 2.0 technologies (wikis, blogs, social networks, mash-ups, etc.) intensively to connect the internal efforts of employees and extend an organization’s reach to customers, partners and suppliers.

The McKinsey worldwide survey of 3,249 executives across a range of regions, industries and functional areas found that two-thirds of respondents use Web 2.0 technologies in their organizations and the results are paying off. The survey asked respondents about their patterns of Web 2.0 use, the measurable business benefits they derived from it and the organizational impact of Web technologies.

More than two-thirds (69%) reported that their companies have gained measurable business benefits, including more innovative products and services, more effective marketing, better access to knowledge, lower cost of doing business, and higher revenues.

This is great news for businesses and their shareholders as well as the economy as a whole. The widespread use of Twitter and Facebook is beginning to look like more than a passing fad, but as a valid way to leverage business opportunities. Blogging can now be used to reach customers more directly and establish stronger relationships.

This is also good for a company’s ability to increase productivity, innovate more and increase employee engagement. According to the survey, the internal organizational impact included increased information sharing, less hierarchical information flows and collaboration across organizational silos.

Those businesses who embrace Web 2.0 technologies both internally and externally deploy talent more flexibly to deal with problems and allow employees lower in the corporate hierarchy to make decisions.

Implementing any new technology in an organization requires employee training to use it, but in the case of Web 2.0, there is also a need to alter corporate culture behaviorally. Just because there is a wiki, doesn’t mean people will contribute to it. Blogging without guidelines, support and incentives won’t necessarily lead to greater usage.

Social networking requires truly embracing the social to be successful and this may very well change the way employees interact inside the organization. Information won’t flow more freely because of technology alone. It also requires a cultural shift in the way employees interact with each other that is based upon mutual respect and trust.

Perhaps this is what separates the 3% of companies included in the McKinsey survey who are considered fully networked—those that have embraced Web 2.0 technologies both internally and externally. They are realizing the most benefits because they have focused their efforts on the cultural aspects as well as the technology.

To realize the bottom-line benefits of Web 2.0, organizations need to focus on the behavior accompanying it. This means empowering employees and giving them greater flexibility to do their jobs.

How is Web 2.0 technology being adopted in your company? Is it just the latest business strategy or is it fully embraced and supported with a focus on shifting the corporate culture so that it can be successful?

Thriving in the Knowledge Economy

The American K-12 public education system is failing to keep up with our counterparts around the world. There is much blame to pass around and despite governmental programs like “No Child Left Behind,” many challenges have yet to be addressed.

Recent documentary films such as “Waiting for Superman” and “Race to Nowhere” are helping to bring this concern front and center, but it may take no short of a revolution to change how we currently educate our children.

And if American-educated students fail to meet the grade, this likely means they will not have the knowledge and skills to compete for twenty-first-century jobs. This is a huge concern.

Tony Wagner, a Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

Wagner’s thesis revolves around “Seven Survival skills”—the core competencies he sees as necessary for success both in college and in the twenty-first-century workforce. These seven survival skills are:

  1. problem solving and critical thinking
  2. collaboration across networks
  3. adaptability
  4. initiative
  5. effective oral and written communication
  6. analyzing information
  7. developing curiosity and imagination

In this knowledge economy it should also be clear that organizations need to prepare existing workers to meet today’s challenges. Many have focused on recruiting workers with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and these are the things many colleges and universities focus on in their curriculum.

But what about the other skills not easily measured with academic tests? These include such straight-forward things as the ability to collaborate and effectively communicate as well as the more esoteric “developing curiosity and imagination.” If these are also essential skills that will enable workers to succeed in the new economy, how can they be developed with current employees?

Many in today’s workforce not only need assistance in learning these skills, but the organizations they work for must also encourage their use. If a company truly wants their employees to collaborate more, they must encourage teams to work together more cooperatively rather than compete with each other for projects and promotions.

Excellent written and oral communication skills are so often requested by employers and documented on resumes by prospective employees that there should be no problem. But, of course, there is. Improving written communication skills beyond text messaging and cryptic tweeting will only continue to be of concern.

Organizations who truly want their workers to take initiative must back it up with incentives (financial and otherwise) to reward this behavior. How often is the phrase “it’s better to beg for forgiveness, than ask for permission” heard around your office?

And if the company wants a worker to develop his or her curiosity and imagination, then the company must accept that there will be missteps, mistakes, and bad decisions along the way. Individual and organizational learning is the likely output and encouraging it can lead to the innovative thinking necessary to compete.

To thrive in the knowledge economy, organizations must have workers capable of critical thinking and problem-solving. They must have employees who effectively communicate, collaborate across networks, analyze information and are adaptable. They also need each employee to take individual initiative and develop their curiosity and imagination.

As with any employee improvement strategy, this requires management to back up their words with deeds. This means providing the training, support, learning, and incentives that truly promote the development of all these essential skills.

How well do employees in your organization problem-solve, effectively communicate and collaborate? If not very well, are there programs in place to address them?

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