Does Working At Home Really Work?
March 4, 2013 Jenny Thomas
When Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer recently dropped the bomb that she was ending work-from-home arrangements beginning this June, telecommuters around the world held their breath. Was it time to close up the home office?
Although Mayer’s decision has re-ignited the debate about the pros and cons of telecommuting, whether or not it is a good idea to allow employees to work at home seems to depend on who you talk to.
Here in the IT Jungle, telecommuting has been our way of life since our inception back in 1996. In my experience, working from home is not for everyone. A successful telecommuter is a self-starter, has excellent time management skills, and can be relied on to get the job done. Working in pajamas is a silly cliché to veterans of the home office. The reality is usually longer hours, and a tendency to wander into the office to get a few more things done no matter the time of night or day of the week.
It is equally important to have a boss who understands the needs of the at-home employee and is willing to keep that person in the loop on what is happening in the office. (Shout out to TPM, our fearless leader at IT Jungle, who can relate to his telecommuting workforce since he’s been working from home since long before it was cool.)
Big Blue appears to be an advocate of the at-home employee as well. IBM‘s employee well being web page states that 40 percent of IBM employees work remotely, either from home or at a client site. What’s more, IBM says it was one of the first global companies to pioneer programs to reduce employee commuting, and has sustained these programs for nearly two decades. According to its calculations, in 2011, in just the U.S. alone, IBM’s work-at-home program conserved approximately 6.4 million gallons of fuel and avoided more than 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
In another show of commitment to the at-home worker, IBM joined the Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC) program in 2009, which recognizes employers who offer commuter benefits, including strong telework programs. And to ensure the success of their telecommuters, IBM has created a well-being management system, which provides for a coordinated and synchronized approach that works consistently across disparate geographies and time zones.
Saving the environment while allowing employees to save time and money by not having to commute are all terrific arguments for telecommuting. But a recent article on the Wall Street Journal focused on some of the possible drawbacks of not having workers in the office.
The article points out that many managers believe having workers in the office allows for greater emphasis on collaboration and opportunities for face-to-face encounters that can lead to new products or relationships. Brett Caine, a senior vice president at Citrix Systems, told the WSJ that while he believes nothing replaces face time, about 86 percent of the company’s 9,000 employees work remotely at some point during the week, for example, telecommuting for deep-concentration tasks, but going into the office for collaborative work, such as brainstorms.
Some companies, such as Salesforce.com, use monitoring programs to track what home-based workers are doing online so managers can gauge how much time is spent on each task. These programs are also helpful in changing the perceptions among managers and colleagues that the at-home worker is actually working, despite studies that show home-based workers may be more productive than their cubicle-bound peers.
The biggest challenge for many home workers, especially in large companies, is finding ways to avoid getting lost in the shuffle. According to a recent study by Stanford University, telecommuters are 50 percent less likely to get a promotion than those who come into the office.
The debate between companies and employees on the pros and cons of remote work will continue. Finding the balance between a worker’s need for flexibility and their need for visibility, is not impossible, but it takes a commitment on both sides. Working from home can be a benefit that helps recruit and retain talent over the long term, but it can’t be denied that workers may be missing out on the personal contacts that get them promoted. Of course, some workers may be happy to trade in a chance at the corner office for the opportunity to work from home.
Sir Richard Branson, the famous billionaire boss of the Virgin empire, said in his blog last week that the move by Meyer to ban telecommuting “seems a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.”
As a happy and productive telecommuter, I couldn’t agree more.