Teleworking works...or not!?!

Posted by BJ Gonzalvo, PhD on Monday, March 4, 2013
Just as when more and more companies were beginning to recognize the value of having their employees telework, tech giant, Yahoo pulls the plug on its telework program and calls its employees back into the office.  Despite its known technological capabilities such as chat, email, and virtual collaboration tools that are obviously sufficient to support a mobile workforce, Yahoo turns around and goes against the grain and re-think its telework policies.  

Telework has been a great recruiting and/or retention incentive and many employees seem to factor this invaluable incentive into their decision process.  From an employee’s standpoint, telework is great because you don’t have to run frantically around the house getting ready for work, no need to fight the stressful morning rush on I-405 or in the subway.  And on days you go in to the office, by the time you get settled in the office, you’re probably already burnt out.  In terms of money, you’re saving on gas, parking, lunch, and snacks.  Not to mention your reduced ecological footprint.  You’re also saving time and energy, hence potentially translating to more energy for work and ultimately more tasks accomplished.  So at 7 in the morning, instead of beginning your commute, you can begin checking email at home.  Instead of preparing lunch, snacks, gym bag, or what have you, you can spend that time responding to emails, lining up your priorities for the day, or preparing for a meeting.  And instead of preparing to go home at 5 PM, checking traffic and weather conditions and packing up your lunch bag, you can keep working because all you’ll need to do is click the power button off and step away from the desk.  So from an employee’s standpoint, there’s a lot of positives about being able to work from home and they are priceless.  

However, from an employer’s standpoint, which is looking through different lens, these factors are not necessarily weighed the same.  The personal benefits are of course not so much about personal anymore but about getting the work done.  With such flexibility comes greater responsibilities.  What seems inherent in this arrangement is the expectation that mobile workers should be able to respond to their boss’s requests quicker, even when it’s outside of the 9-5 boundaries.  It’s a trade-off but seems fair for a lot of people and it can be a win-win for all the parties involved.

And from a technological standpoint, telework is becoming more and more feasible as the mobile and virtual technologies make gigantic strides with the innovations.  We now have a very mobile workforce and collaboration can happen virtually anywhere.  Many workers whose type of work allows them to work anywhere will likely choose to telework.  In the DC region where telework is a popular arrangement, the percentage of commuters who telecommuted reached 25% in 2010-- doubled since 2001.  In the 2010 State of the Commute Survey for the Washington DC region, only 9% of the respondents who could telecommute indicated not interested in teleworking.  

But more important than the technology is the human/social element. In a teleworking arrangement, there’s the issue of trust.  Are employers able to trust that their employees are actually working and not snacking and watching youtube videos all day?  Or are the ‘unsupervised’ teleworkers just watching soap opera?  Is there teamwork and is there collaborative progress still happening?   Is there an impact on productivity or the quality of work?  It often boils down to trusting your employees, giving them the autonomy, and holding them accountable for results.  In a results-driven work environment, it should not matter where your employee gets the work done as long as it is done and done right.  

A Stanford University study of a Chinese call center firm measured productivity differences between teleworkers and non-teleworkers.  The study found an increase in the productivity of those who teleworked by 13%-- higher than the other group who performed the same job, used the same technology, and were paid equally the same but only did not telework.  Another important finding from this study was that attrition also dropped by 50% among those who teleworked.  Not to mention that satisfaction was also much higher.  

So in this personal blog, telework I think has a lot of benefits and far outweighs the negatives.  Besides, the negatives can be managed and worked through by both the employee and the supervisor together.  Build trust, maintain open communication, stay engaged and focused, and really reach out to each other.  It is easy to fall off the grid as a teleworker so there is a bit of extra work and reaching out to be done in order to make the telework arrangement effective and its benefits realizable.

References:

Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J, and Ying, Z.J. (2013).  Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment.  Found in http://www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/WFH.pdf.

MWCOG State of the Commute Survey for Washington, DC (2010).  


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