Remote control

The pros of telecommuting can outweigh the pitfalls

Fred Mael

Summer in the city means even more gritty commutes and carpools around and between one or both Beltways. The swelter makes one dream of working away from the office, at a home office or a beach or cabin. As the CEO or manager of a company, you may have already considered having your employees telecommute (work remotely on a regular basis). What are the pros and cons of your letting or even encouraging them do so?

As of 2006, an estimated 45 million Americans employees telecommuted. About 90% of telecommuters are in the office at least part-time, so that some of the biggest fears about remote work arrangements affect few employees. However, some legitimate concerns have been raised, mainly in three areas:

Autonomy: Does the freedom to set one’s hours and cut out the commute result in more productive work? Or does the lack of supervision result in more goofing off?
Work-family conflict: Does working at home result in a smoother integration of life and more availability to both work and family? Or does the blurring of lines make the employee always on call for both work and family?
Social isolation: Does working away from the workplace leave one out of the loop from coworkers, bosses, and even possibilities for involvement in new opportunities? Or have the advent of cell phones, email, and texting rendered face-to-face engagement as obsolete or at least overrated?

Conflicting studies have confused decision makers in all these areas. A landmark 2007 study by Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison of Penn State University resolved some of these issues. Their meta-analysis, a combined statistical reanalysis of 46 different studies, provided encouraging results. Among their findings: Generally, people working at home performed as well as or better than others, as measured by supervisor ratings and objective measures. They had higher job satisfaction, in part because of the greater autonomy and flexibility they enjoy, and lower turnover rates as well. They are better able to resolve work-family conflicts. And, contrary to expectations, relationships with supervisors and coworkers are not harmed, at least for those who come to the workplace during part of the work week.

Not for everyone

Telecommuting is not feasible for everyone, particularly those in frontline retail jobs. Others who are not good candidates for telecommuting include:

those who don’t have a quiet work place that can serve as a refuge from family

those who are trying to babysit while actually working

those who are not sufficiently self-motivated to get going at home

those who are not trustworthy, and

those who need daily human contact in the workplace to feel engaged.

Telecommuting can actually derail some careers. Consider “Bill”, a successful IT consultant who moved across the country but continued to work remotely for his former employer. Within months, he saw his productivity plummet. He couldn’t adapt to becoming a focused self-starter without the social competition that can come from a serious work environment. Within six months, he lost his job. He eventually went back to a traditional office job, and began to flourish again.

Issues to consider

Choosing who benefits. As a manager, you would be wise to develop a checklist of “telecommuting readiness” so that those who are not good candidates will understand why and can work toward becoming able to telecommute. This will also help you avoid charges of favoritism when you give more deserving employees added leeway to telecommute. Perceptions of favoritism can fray group cohesion, and shutting out the telecommuters can be a subtle form of revenge. However, the alternative – not letting anyone telecommute in order to appease your least deserving employees – deprives you of the benefits and makes you less competitive in retaining valued employees. Professor Jeff Hill of Brigham Young University says that the more objective you can make performance criteria, the better you can demonstrate that telecommuting is or is not working out for certain employees.
Dispute resolution. One of the downsides of working remotely is that when disputes arise, there may be a greater tendency to resolve matters by email, if at all. That’s never the most courageous or efficient way to resolve conflicts, but when one is out of sight, it’s an overly tempting option. As Professor Hill explains, you need to convey to your employees that negative or sensitive communications are best handled in person, at the very least by phone, and certainly not by email or mail.
Group cohesion. In general, it would be advisable to schedule set days when all team members are in the workplace and can meet together. This may be difficult for some geographically remote employees who never come to the workplace, but they may be the most prone to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Fulltime telecommuters do run a higher risk of frayed relationships with supervisors and coworkers and they need some way to feel included. Consider videoconferencing, regularly scheduled trips to the office, and/or an office ‘buddy’ to keep them abreast of opportunities and issues.
Managers without roles. Some of your resistant managers will actually fear telecommuting as it may expose that they don’t have enough to do and that micromanaging their subordinates, ostensibly for their employees’ sakes, was a big part of their day’s work. Be prepared to work with those managers to redefine their roles so that telecommuting is a net gain for them and the organization.
Alternatives to working at home. For those employees who cannot realistically work at home, an alternative is to work in a remote office, often referred to as a telecenter. There are over a dozen alternative work sites in the Greater Washington corridor where employers, both government and commercial, can rent space for employees to work one or more days a week. The benefits include the seriousness of a non-home, actual work environment; shared technical resources; and the benefit of human contact (albeit with employees of other organizations), while still avoiding long commutes.

Too good to dismiss

Telecommuting is not for every organization, or every job, or every individual. However, it’s too valuable a tool for productivity, job satisfaction and retention to dismiss out of hand. It can also mean cost-savings in terms of office space and other resources. If it’s applicable to your kind of work, you would be wise to figure out if and how you can make it work.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the August, 2010 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.