Two major snowstorms and a surprising CEO memo have put telecommuting under the workplace microscope again.
By DIANE STAFFORD
The Kansas City Star
Happy home-based employees are aghast at what seems to be a turn-back-the-clock move by Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer, who has summoned the companys telecommuters into the office by June.
Theres no doubt that the occasional work-at-home practice used liberally when back-to-back February snowfalls buried the Kansas City area is a fabulous option for workers who can work remotely. But several studies give Mayer the benefit of the doubt, saying full-time remote work may not be the right choice for organizations or employees.
One issue, Kansas City economist Chris Kuehl recently told business clients, is management and control.
Organizations with remote workers can do well when the jobs have clear definitions and deadlines, and when managers have the means to monitor productivity. Organizations do less well with a scattered workforce when the jobs call for collaboration or quick reaction.
In the latter case, Kuehl said, its far easier for managers to have people where they can see them.
The Yahoo letter didnt address hands-on supervision. Rather, it called for more spontaneous interaction a quality difficult to nurture with far-flung employees.
Still, Yahoos back-to-the-office edict was ironic in that it came from an information technology company whose very products helped make remote work as sophisticated and widespread as its grown to be. Further irony comes from Mayers well-known status as a new mother. As such shes part of a workforce sector that has campaigned vigorously for job flexibility to juggle work and family life.
Jordan Cohen, a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group, cautions against making the Yahoo order into a trend or a broad indictment of telecommuting. Take it in isolation, he said, as a signal that the company is suffering.
And its possible that management has failed to correctly diagnose the problem.
You cant make policy changes just to address problems that are managerial in nature, Cohen said. The real questions are, What has to be accomplished? And what is the best way to accomplish it? Maybe telecommuting is part of that solution.
Ben Waber, chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a management services firm, says the in-house moves may be right for Yahoo at this time but not necessarily right for other organizations or workers.
Theres a big difference between telecommuting occasionally and working from home every day of the year, said Waber, a scientist who uses sensor and digital communication data to analyze productivity and other business results.
Occasional telecommuting allows people to deal with one-time events and promotes a less stressful work environment, he said. Remote work, however, means that you lack a social connection to your colleagues.
Face time a factor
Some studies show that a result of that break in social connection is lower job satisfaction and higher turnover. Other studies show that individual workers may suffer career penalties when managers harbor unconscious bias against employees they dont see every day.
A recent academic study by Kimberly Elsbach of the University of California-Davis and Daniel Cable of the London Business School investigated perceptions of workers performance by their managers. The study found that workers who are seen at their desks during work hours are more likely to be considered responsible and dependable than telecommuters.
Their conclusion, which should worry full-time remote workers: Just being seen at work, without any information about what youre actually doing, leads people to think more highly of you.
Unfortunately, Elsbach and Cable found, bosses often fail to realize when they unconsciously think less of telecommuters than of the telecommuters in-office peers. Thus the long-term career effect for full-time telecommuters could be poorer performance evaluations, lower raises and fewer promotions.
Yet after the Yahoo story broke, social media went crazy with positive comments from people who work at home. And its not hard to find examples of contented telecommuters.
Tucker Swanson and Jana Del Valle, two employees of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Kansas City, are happy with the Blues extensive home-based work arrangements.
After a six-month training session in the Blues office, during which time he got to know supervisors and colleagues an important factor to avoid isolation Swanson works full time at home as a customer service representative in the companys call center operations.
Its easier to work at home, because Im not distracted by the person sitting next to me or anything else going on in the office, Swanson said.
Hes also constantly connected to the office with the companys instant messaging system. And when he feels the need, the company has desk space for remote workers to work in the office.
On the flip side, Del Valle, who usually works in the office, treasures the ability to work at home if needed. Working on group projects? Shes in the office. Writing a report? Shell opt for home. And when the snow hit, hunkering down at home meant no loss of work time.
I average working at home about three days a month, but with the snow, it went up, she said. And I have a 9-year-old daughter, so when schools out on Good Friday, Ill work at home again.
The system works, said Nancy Creasy, a Blues senior vice president, because the company has the right equipment and hiring models. The system provides flexibility in emergencies. And it provides cost savings. When employees, especially in large numbers, work in their homes, office overhead costs are lower. And telecommuting even helps hold down overall health care costs, she said.
Regus, a company that provides virtual offices, business centers and video communication services, released a survey that showed what users of its services thought was right or wrong about the way remote workers are being handled.
More than four out of five survey respondents said managers need to accept and trust flexible workers more. The survey also indicated that younger workers are more likely to demand telecommutings flexibility and will leave if they dont have that option.
Amanda Augustine, a job search professional at TheLadders.com, agreed that staff attraction and retention is an important consideration.
Assuming an employees productivity and work output isnt negatively impacted by a virtual office, offering a more flexible work schedule to a portion of the company is a great way to retain talent and improve morale, Augustine said.
Notice the qualification she set for offering telecommuting to a portion of the workforce. Most authorities agree that job descriptions and personal qualities must mesh for telecommuting to be appropriate. Most also agree that periodic face-to-face interaction of co-workers as the best way to share ideas and build camaraderie.
Experts also note that command-and-control managers who simply dont trust remote working relationships need to be better trained or be removed from those kinds of supervisory roles.
For employers who continue to doubt the ability to fully supervise remote workers, authorities point to technology that allows close monitoring of the staff from afar. Some employers use computer surveillance software, including screenshots of workers computer activity and browser-history tracking, to make sure remote workers are doing what theyre supposed to be doing.
But whats more important, advised Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, which advocates for flexible workplaces, is that organizations successfully evolve to systems based on autonomy and accountability getting the expected job done well and on time rather than focusing on exact minutes spent on the job or the location where its accomplished.
When thats done successfully, telecommuting advocates argue, slackers are separated from producers, without managers cracking a whip.
The plus side
Advocates see other upsides to remote work. A study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute said Kansas City commuters are caught in the equivalent of 27 hours of traffic congestion each year. And the national average is 38 hours of delay.
Working from home saves fuel, reduces air pollution and eliminates commute time that could be spent more productively. And productivity continues to be the core issue.
On the same day that the Yahoo letter went viral, a Stanford University study reported that call center employees who worked from home increased their productivity by 13 percent and were more satisfied employees.
A University of Texas at Austin study last year said people who work from home added five to seven hours to their workweek compared with employees who worked solely in the office.
Also, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report last year said working remotely appears to reduce absenteeism and increase retention.
And one more plus for working at home: When this winters flu outbreak decimated some workplaces, public health officials said telecommuting helped reduce the spread of disease.
According to a national survey taken in October of 500 adults who work from home either full or part time, the perks of telecommuting were:
• Improved work-life balance, mentioned by 54 percent.
• Lower stress and better health, 52 percent.
• Ability to complete household chores (like laundry) while working, 50 percent.
• No involvement in office gossip, 38 percent.
• Ability to be near their children during the daytime, 25 percent.
Although home-based workers may be happy about their circumstances, employment law attorneys warn employers to be vigilant about more than just tracking work performance.
Jim Holland, at Fisher & Phillips in Kansas City, said he tells clients to be particularly careful about monitoring work hours if the telecommuting employee is paid on an hourly basis. Every hour worked must be recorded and paid correctly, either as straight time or overtime.
For workers whose job descriptions exempt them from the hourly pay requirement of federal wage and hour law, theres no time-clock punching. And that has led to what some consider the biggest drawback of telecommunity: Workers are putting in more work hours at home than if they were reporting to a desk at work.
Holland said lawyers and insurers ears prick up about home-based workers for another reason safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration isnt inspecting home offices as they do established workplaces, but employers should be aware of their employees home-office conditions, he said.
Some workers compensation insurers are requiring their employer clients to inspect their telecommuters work sites for safety problems that could lead to injury.
We tell employers that if theyre going to allow people to work from home as part of a regular relationship, they should have a policy in place that theres a designated work location in the home and the employer has the right to inspect it for safety, Holland said.
Those efforts might protect employers from added expenses and lawsuits if, for example, an employee trips on an electrical cord snaking across the home-office floor and claims a work injury.
Another legal concern is that employers make sure remote workers use secure, password-required systems and conduct proprietary or privileged client business behind company firewalls.
Employees working on home wireless systems often arent as secure as the business system, Holland said. Thats not to say hackers are driving down streets and stealing information, but its just another concern for remote workers.
To make remote working work:
• Have clear performance expectations and measurements.
• Train managers to be aware of bias against workers who lack office face time.
• Maintain daily communication with remote workers.
• Make sure hardware and software are up to date and work seamlessly with in-office systems.
• Require in-person attendance at occasional team meetings or use good videoconferencing tools.
• Encourage telecommuters to periodically work in the office and have on demand, fully equipped desks ready for them.
• Include remote workers input when brainstorming or asking for feedback from in-office employees.
• 45% - Remote control of their computer desktops at work
• 43% - Mobile access to work files at both home and work
• 40% - Ability to participate in office meetings as if in the same room
• 40% - Ability to print remotely
• 38% - Ability to work on a document through screen sharing
• 37% - Face-to-face video communication with colleages and clients
Source: TeamViewer 2012 poll of 500 American adults who telecommute; percentages rounded
To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.