Has Telecommuting Fallen from Grace?

Once considered the cure for all workplace ills, many businesses and employees are questioning the merits of working from home.

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.