Has Telecommuting Fallen from Grace?

By Deb Perelman  |  Posted 2008-05-01

Has Telecommuting Fallen from Grace?

There was a time when telecommuting was seen as a panacea. The proliferation of wireless technology had made it easier for workers in countless arenas to work from their living rooms or the coffee shop of their choice, leading waves of companies to embrace partial or total remote work policies for their masses.

It seemed like a win-win. Employees were happy because they weren't wasting hours of their day snarled in traffic, it gave them a better-work life balance, they were more efficient without in-office distractions, and, in turn, they got more satisfaction from their jobs. Bosses were happy because they were saving money on office space and because happier employees were theoretically more productive and less likely to job-hop. And businesses were happy because the promise of a flexible working environment was a priceless tactic to recruit workers, young and old.

So what happened? Only a few years since it was heralded as a newer, better way to work, studies began to emerge that put chinks in the armor of telecommuting.

Sixty-one percent of executives surveyed in January 2007 by Korn/Ferry International, a Los Angeles-based recruiting firm, said they saw career stagnancy among telecommuting workers.

Nearly half of CIOs felt that remote employees' quality of work suffered due to reduced in-person contact with colleagues, and one-third said that these employees were less productive due to a lack of supervision, in a study released last July by Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm in Menlo Park, Calif. 

Back to the Office

In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that a few of the biggest promoters of home-based work arrangements, including AT&T, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and segments of the federal government, had called many remote workers back to the office.

AT&T and HP, a company said to have invented flextime, both said it was to consolidate operations. Intel reported that it was to improve team relations through increased face-to-face interactions. And the federal government cited security worries from laptop theft to hackers on wireless networks as the cause of their remote work rollbacks.

IBM, where more than 40 percent of employees don't come into the office every day, recently evaluated the pros and cons of telecommuting through a study by Jay Mulki, a marketing professor at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration.

In his study, Mulki found that telecommuting presented two major challenges: a feeling of isolation and difficulty achieving a work-life balance.

"Isolation happens when telecommuters can't get the support they need," Mulki said. "When face-to-face communication isn't possible, workers need a substitute-and voice mail isn't it."

Work-life balance-originally seen as one of the boons of telecommuting-had been cited by others as something that could be hard to maintain when working from home.

Jeffrey Phillips, a marketing professional who writes at the Working Smarter blog, found the blurred boundaries of a home office difficult to add structure to.

"If your home is where your work is, when are you 'on the clock' and when are you 'off the clock'?  It becomes much more simple to go 'back to work' after dinner if you work from home, but fairly soon you can find yourself complete immersed in work, even at home, to the detriment of your life and your family," wrote Phillips.

Making Remote Work, Work

So is there any way to maintain a full or partial telecommuting or remote work arrangement without feeling out of the loop, isolated and that you cannot turn work off when it's time to be with your family?

Experts say that depends on the person, the manager and the arrangement at hand, and that there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution.

"Full-time telecommuting is one of those things that can sound better than it actually is," said John Estes, a vice president at Robert Half Technology, who said that the practice is far from pervasive right now.

"A lot of it depends on the individual and the job," Estes said. "There are a lot of positions-in sales, for example-where being in the office isn't that important. It gives the average employee more flexibility, such as if they're sick but not so sick that they can't log on for an hour or two."

However, when Estes does see a remote work policy implemented, there are almost always controls put into place, ensuring that an employee's face is seen in the office at regular, predictable intervals.

To combat isolation, Mulki suggested that employees take deliberate actions, including using technology, utilizing their own personal social networks and increasing opportunities for face-to-face interactions to increase informal communication.

Managers should play a role, as well.

"Our results suggest that managers should provide support, mentoring [and] training and work on developing community activities to help remote employees address isolation issues," Mulki said. "It was specifically recommended that the manager should meet face to face with each remote employee at least once every year."

The difficulty that some have maintaining a work-life balance while working from home, however, is seen as a more personal challenge. Mulki's study showed that remote employees found it more difficult to disengage from work and tended to work longer hours due to the lack of boundaries between work and home life. He suggests that remote employees set routines and make clear to managers when they are not available.

However, others note these are often the same workers who had trouble disconnecting even when they didn't work from home.

"If you're wired 24 hours a day with a BlackBerry, it can be hard to resist the temptation to check your e-mail during dinner or on vacation. This can happen to anybody," said Estes.

In the end, Estes notes, some people may be better at telecommuting than others, depending on how good they are at self-managing, and because of this, remote work won't be taking over the world just yet.

"In the long run, I think it will enhance workers' experiences, but it won't be the revolution people once talked as if it was going to be," he said.

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