Employers should weigh pros and cons of telecommuting

November 1, 2013


computerA human resources issue more companies face in our modern workplace is the telecommuter versus the traditional worker.  Yahoo recently made headlines when its management announced its employees would no longer be allowed to telecommute.  “Telecommuting” is defined as the “act of working at home by use of an electronic linkup or computer connection to a central office,” or simply as “working remotely,” In Yahoo’s announcement the company used the term “work-from-home arrangements.”


The basic principles of “remote working” have been around forever.  Before the Industrial Revolution goods were commonly manufactured by craftsmen from home.  After the Industrial Revolution production was centralized to take advantage of machinery, economy of scale, and line efficiencies.

With the advent of the Information Age, we have seen a new type of remote worker known as the telecommuter, which allows companies to invest in remote access, mobile platforms, and VPN technologies that enable users to work from almost anywhere.  We also see a plethora of applications that facilitate remote working such as Office 365, Go-To-My-PC, Dropbox, MS Lynx, and Cisco VoIP, to name just a few.

The modern remote worker is likely to be in high-tech or financial sectors, to have a college degree, to work as a manager or professional (this correlates to a shift in workloads between hourly employees, who are actually working less, at 20 or 30 hours a week, and salaried workers who are now working 45, 50 or even 60 hours a week), is less likely to be married and surprisingly (at least to me) are only slightly more likely to be a parent (51 percent) and are slightly more likely to be men (53 percent).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, workers in major metropolitan areas show the highest rates of long commutes. According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.8 million people, or 8.1 percent of workers, commute an hour or more to work each way. What’s more, 600,000 are classified as “mega-commuters,” traveling 90 minutes or more and at least 50 miles to get into the office (the highest work places with mega commuters being San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.) This is in sharp contrast to the national average commuting time of 25.5 minutes.


There are lots of advantages that telecommuting proponents can point to in support of the concept. For example a variety of studies show that telecommuting and working from home are associated with higher productivity, increased employee retention, and decreased absenteeism (of course this one is a little confusing to me since they are, by definition absent).

A range of studies show various subjective pluses such as: increased employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement; reduced exposure to common ailments such as flu and colds; and the ability to work from anywhere. In addition, it appears that “non-productive” time is the same as for on-site workers, but working from home enables employees to put their “wasted” time to better use. Instead of just chatting or surfing, the worker could take care of household chores and tasks that have to be done, but would otherwise fill up personal time: laundry, dishes, prepping dinner. That also means that when the work day is done, the worker is free to actually use the personal time for more enriching activities than simple mundane chores or drive time.

Other more economic advantages include reduction of commuting time and the related environmental impact (studies have shown it cuts an hour or more of wasted commuting time every day on average); hard costs of commuting (studies show a typical telecommuter saves anywhere from $2,000-$7,000 annually on expenses such as transportation and clothes); the company can realize reduced costs associated with the work space itself: the size of the office, the furniture, the electricity used, the cost of heating and cooling the office space, etc. (studies indicate an employer can save $8,000 –  $11,000 per employee when that person works from home even half the time); and in theory workers can be shielded from much of the distracting and stressful aspects of the workplace, such as office politics, interruptions, constant meetings and information overload.


So with all these advantages, why aren’t we all working from home?  Simple –employers have been managing people in the workplace since the Industrial Revolution, and they harbor the fear that if you can’t see them, you can’t trust that they are actually working, or at least working on the right things.  Employers are also concerned that telecommuting relies on technology, which is complicated and requires its own kind of management.

Studies also show there is a flip side to the quality-of-life advantages, such as productivity.  Studies using sensor ID badges to measure human interaction in the workplace demonstrated that people with “extensive face-to-face networks” are roughly twice as productive as people who keep to themselves or only communicate electronically. The mental toll is also equally striking: face-to-face interaction can be attributed to nearly all typical measures of on-the-job-satisfaction, while electronic communications appear to have no such positive effect.

In addition there are the “soft” costs of telecommuting: alienation or disassociation from co-workers, reduced collaboration, and interestingly, more work hours.  In the “proprietary and confidential” Yahoo memo, concluded that “[t]o become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Various reports of feedback from the Yahoo human resources change included harsh commentaries such as: there are a “huge number of people … who just never come in”; many of effected people “weren’t productive”; and “A lot of [these] people hid. There were all these [remote workers] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.”

Clearly telecommuting is here to stay, and the technology to make it more advantageous and attractive is improving every day.  The challenges will depend on your company’s business sector, management model, and your comfort level on having worker bees that you can’t see.  The advantages warrant careful consideration for almost any modern company.


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