FUD tarnishes the telecommuting experience

Despite research pointing to productivity and cost advantages for telecommuting, skepticism on both side remains that it's a good idea

The word "ambivalence" can aptly describe how many telecommuters feel about their work situation. On the one hand, they enjoy the luxury of being able to better balance personal and work lives, save money, and spare the air by cutting their commutes. On the other, many fear telecommuting may hurt their opportunities to advance at work.

I'm basing these observations in part on survey results commissioned by Steelcase, an office-furniture manufacturer. The company commissioned a survey of 700 white-collar workers and found 46 percent are allowed to telecommute and 32 percent take advantage of it -- but nearly two-thirds of all the respondents expressed fear that working from home "will hinder their chances at a promotion due to the lack of contact with the employer," according to the company.

Moreover, 72 percent of the respondents said they feel that their employers prefer to have them in the office to control their work environment; another 71 percent said the boss wants them around to prevent a decline in productivity. Another 62 percent said they believe companies prefer them in the office to prevent a lack of communication.

These findings don't necessarily surprise me -- but they bother me, in part because I'm a telecommuter. They suggest to me that even as telecommuting becomes more prevalent and its various benefits become evident, myths persist that tarnish its reputation.

I'd also wager some companies -- or individuals therein -- are struggling with insufficient training or perhaps corporate-cultural barriers preventing employees from being good telecommuters, working effectively with far-flung peers, or sufficiently managing subordinates who do their jobs from home.

In terms of myths, one of the biggies is the notion that telecommuting results in a decline in productivity. I disagree. The Journal of Applied Psychology released a report last November analyzing the telecommuting habits of 12,833 employees. It found that "managers who oversaw telecommuters reported that the telecommuters' performance was not negatively affected by working from home."

Other research I've seen suggests that telecommuters' performance is actually positively affected by working from home. As I mentioned last year, "the Colorado Telework Coalition report … that American Express's teleworkers produce 43 percent more business than employees at the office; Compaq teleworkers were found to be between 15 percent and 45 percent more productive than their office counterparts."

That, in and of itself, makes a positive case to me that a worker can spend at least some time doing his or her job from home -- and doing it successfully.

I'd say the concerns over perceived communication barriers are natural, though. From my experience as a telecommuter, I'd say that problem stems more from psychological barriers and perhaps insufficient training than anything. I know that I can communicate quite well with some of my co-workers using IM, e-mail, and even the phone, in a pinch. Yet others seem unable to maintain contact using the aforementioned tools -- even though IMing or calling me can be as quick and easy as dropping into my cubicle (easier, perhaps, as there's no walk down the hall). Yes, something arguably gets lost without face-to-face communication, but that just means improving those particular communication skills.

What this all boils down to, at least in part, is the need for a well-thought-out telecommuting strategy, complete with guidelines as to what is expected of both manager and employee, as well as adequate training for all parties concerned: those working from home and those working from the office. On top of training, everyone needs to have the necessary tools to ensure the telecommuters are adequately connected; that is, they have access to all the tools they need in addition to being made to feel included in what happens at the office.

There's plenty of guidance to be found about telecommuting. I recommend that any company or employee contemplating it check out the following resources:

* Give telecommuting the green light - This is a general overview about telecommuting I wrote last year, touching on some of the benefits for both employee and employer.

* Sun, employees find big savings from Open Work telecommuting program - Sun shared some interesting detailed data about the success of its telework program. For example, Sun found that its U.S. employees saved an average of $870 per year in gasoline (back when it was just $3.26 a gallon) and around $1,770 in wear and tear on their car (by driving 3,700 fewer commute miles) by telecommuting in 2007. Meanwhile, Sun saved nearly $68 million in real estate costs.

* Telecommute. Kill a career? - Another look at the dark side of telecommuting: According to article, "Over 60% of 1,320 global executives surveyed by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International said they believe that telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers in comparison to employees working in traditional office settings. Company executives want face time with their employees, the study said."

* How to best manage telecommuting - Here's a good set of 10 tips for anyone tasked with managing remote employees, from Baseline. Tips include "have a weekly group teleconference that lasts no more than 30 minutes" and "talk to each member of your staff at least every other day via phone."

What are you thoughts or experiences when it comes to telecommuting? Do you think it can hurt your career? Is the risk worth the benefits of working remotely, be it daily or occasionally?


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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