Telecommuting: Wave of the Future or Failed Experiment?

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According to a survey from Gallup, telecommuting is still on the rise. Yet there are also reports of some high-profile dismantling of telecommuting programs. As a result, there's a lot of conflicting information about the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting with regard to corporate culture, productivity, and work-life balance. Like many organizational initiatives, the results depend more on the implementation than the program itself.

Although studies show that 79% of employees want to work from home, they also have concerns that working from home will mean that they're "always on" and their jobs will bleed into the rest of their lives.

So how can your company reap the benefits of telecommuting while avoiding potential pitfalls? Understand the issues, and then implement your program with intention.

For Long Work Hours, Blame the Culture, not Telecommuting

Let's start with the idea that working from home instead of at the office automatically places more demands on workers to be available, or have work bleed into personal time. My experience as a productivity trainer shows this to be a misconception.

If a company's work-at-home employees are having a problem with work creeping into the rest of their lives, that's likely an issue with the overall culture of the workplace — not the fact that they're allowed to work solely or mostly from home.

Too many workplaces encourage 24-7 availability. Managers may explicitly state that they demand constant responsiveness from employees. But, more often, expectations and assumptions arise when managers aren't clear about their intentions. For example, employees may assume that a manager wants an immediate reply to an email sent after hours when in fact the manager doesn't expect an answer until the following morning.

Whether or not managers create this kind of culture deliberately, the result is the same: Employees compulsively check email and try to "stay on top of things" well beyond their normal work hours. That's true whether they're based at the office or at home.

If you see signs of this kind of culture in your workplace, addressing them will benefit all employees.

Productivity Can Happen (or Fail to Happen) Anywhere

Managers may also be apprehensive about allowing employees to telecommute if they are still tied to the idea that productivity equals hours logged at the office. The prospect of an employee being out of their sight makes them uneasy.

There's a big flaw in this way of thinking, though. The work setting is not the primary factor in an employee's ability to get core work done. Instead, productivity depends more on the employee's ability to organize and prioritize their workload, and manage distractions, no matter where she's working.

A manager might argue that an employee will face too many distractions at home, and be tempted by personal tasks. But what the manager overlooks is that the office can also be distraction-filled. In research for my latest book, Work Without Walls, I found ample evidence that the growing popularity of open office floor plans leads to productivity losses due to increased noise, decreased privacy, and the tendency for constant impromptu meetings and discussions. And, of course, plenty of bad productivity habits — like allowing their work to be interrupted by email alerts or social media notifications — follow employees no matter their location.

And new research shows that there are productivity benefits to working at home. Sapience, a “people analytics solutions” company, shared with me advance results from their upcoming Productivity Trends Report. Sapience metrics are used to help employees improve their own performance, and help organizations offer more flexible work policies.

Using a sample size of 20,000 users, Sapience metrics offer a strong case for telecommuting, showing that employees spend an average of 2.5 more hours working per day when working from home, and an average of 1.8 hours more time on “core work:” the important and high-value tasks their clients designate as likely to move organizational goals forward.

These results may ease some of the organizational concerns about telecommuting, like managers fearing that employees will slack off if they're not at the office, or that they’ll be less effective if they can’t collaborate with teammates in person.

Implement with Intention

Rather than resisting telecommuting because of anecdotal evidence, a company would be better served by:

1. Teaching managers to use metrics beyond face time at the office to measure productivity, perhaps using software like that from Sapience.

2. Teaching employees productivity and attention management skills that translate no matter their work environment.

So what do those skills look like? Employees should be able to:

· Set priorities and determine the best use of their time at any given moment.

· Deliberately plan their day and choose their tasks, rather than being constantly reactive.

· Manage distractions, whatever form they take.

· Minimize task-switching (for example, interrupting their work on a project to answer an email), which drains productivity.

These skills impact a company's bottom line in myriad ways. When employees master them, work quality improves and stress and turnover decline. These are skills more likely to be taught in training that encompasses attention management, rather than traditional time management training.

Minimize the Downside

Before you allow employees to work remotely all or most of the time, carefully consider how you will ensure that they become part of the team. Trust, camaraderie, and collaboration are important components of a positive corporate culture. Here are some tips to foster these characteristics when part of the team is distributed geographically.

· Make video calls and meetings a regular occurrence with all employees, so that they don’t seem like an unusual and inconvenient accommodation for remote workers.

· Offer remote workers the opportunity to visit the office with some regularity.

· Add a line item to the budget for annual (or more frequent, if possible) company events.

· If there are staff who are within driving distance of each other, encourage them to get together more often by renting co-working space for them to meet, or simply co-work, periodically.

· Consider creating geographic “hubs” when hiring, so that employees do have an opportunity to collaborate locally, in between trips into headquarters.

More Ways to Ensure Productive Telecommuting

Your office culture, your employees' productivity skills, and proper training for your managers all play big roles in how well your employees succeed with at-home work. Additionally, here are a few more questions to answer any time you're considering whether an employee can work full- or part-time from home:

· Is the employee's role suitable? How much of his work is solitary work vs. group? The more collaborative the role, the more in-office time the employee probably needs. But even highly collaborative roles have some tasks more suited to solitary time, so letting the employee work from home sometimes could be beneficial.

· Does the employee have a productive work environment at home? That includes other people in the home, physical space, furniture, and equipment, but also the appropriate technology tools and skills — for example, a sufficient internet connection, collaboration and communication software, and the skills to use them.

· Are there security issues? Security should already be on your radar if your employees do work like answering email outside the office. Ask your IT team (or get specialized help if you need it) to ensure company data is secure. Work flow analytics software can also ease concerns about security breaches.

Whether, and how often, their employees can work from home is a decision that is unique to each organization. However your policies on at-home work take shape, the important thing is that you craft and implement them with intention and consistency. This leads to greater happiness and productivity for your employees and, in turn, greater productivity for your company.