Unlocking the Promise of Telecommuting

Unlocking the Promise of Telecommuting

A technological revolution is gradually liberating the modern workplace by unchaining work from place.

A technological revolution is gradually liberating the modern workplace by unchaining work from place. This revolution has been variously referred to as telecommuting, telework, work-from-home (WFH), remote work, flexible work, and virtual work. Common to all these labels is a work arrangement in which employees work from home or convenient locations instead of commuting to a central work location, using information and communication technologies to interact with coworkers and clients.

Although reliable statistics about telecommuting's prevalence in India are hard to come by, the rapid growth of telecommuting in the US presages a similar trend in India over the next several years. About a third of the US' workforce has telecommuted at some time, and the number of telecommuters has doubled in the last decade. Echoing this popularity, a survey of 7,500 Indian employees reported a high demand for telecommuting. Yet, anecdotal evidence and newspaper reports in India suggest that the opportunity to work from home is restricted to a small set of valuable employees in the IT, finance, and consulting sectors.

Ravi S. Gajendran, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, urges organisations to shed reservations, and implement the practice of remote working. While it certainly makes business sense, he says, it also helps nurture loyalty and productivity among employees. He talks about how organisations can devise a mutually beneficial work arrangement with their employees.

Despite telecommuting's growing popularity (or perhaps because of it), many managers and leaders have voiced concerns about this work arrangement. For instance, Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer, banned employees from telecommuting because of concerns about the speed and quality of their work. Likewise, the celebrated ex-CEO of GE, Jack Welch, warned employees against telecommuting, arguing that face time at work communicates to managers that "Work is my top priority. I'm committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can".

Such opinions, however, are contrary to scientific research suggesting that telecommuting is mutually beneficial for employees and employers. In our research, based on a meta-analysis of 46 studies of telecommuting involving 12,833 employees, we found that telecommuters reported higher job satisfaction and autonomy perceptions, better work-family balance, lower stress, and reduced motivation to leave their firm. Supervisors reported that telecommuters were good performers.These benefits largely come about because telecommuting provides employees greater control over how, where, and when they do their work.

The meta-analysis also found that telecommuting did not hurt employee relationships with their managers and co-workers, belying popular belief, with one exception. Employees who telecommuted three or more days a week reported deterioration in co-worker relationships. Telecommuters also reported no adverse career consequences. In a follow-up study, we found that managers rated telecommuters not only as good performers, but also as helpful colleagues and dedicated employees.

If telecommuting is indeed a win-win for employees and employers, why are some managers so concerned about allowing employees to telecommute? And what can organisations do to address these concerns?

Many managers view telecommuting primarily as a family-friendly employee perquisite that imposes workplace productivity and social costs. They are concerned that employees who work from home will shirk their work or prioritise family needs over it. Addressing these valid managerial concerns will be crucial for the successful adoption and implementation of telecommuting.

To start with, organisations have to recognise that telecommuting makes business sense. Telecommuting can be a source of competitive advantage because it can contribute to attracting and retaining talented employees, and to enhancing their engagement and productivity. It can also help employees achieve greater work-life balance, which also translates into greater commitment and retention over the long-term. For many organisations, telecommuting represents a business continuity strategy that keeps critical processes humming during bandhs, cyclones, or terror attacks. Organisations should clearly communicate to managers these key employer and employee benefits of telecommuting, and proactively seek their buy-in for the arrangement.

To reassure managers that employee productivity will not suffer when telecommuting, organisations should develop clear criteria about what types of employees are eligible for telecommuting. For instance, they may restrict telecommuting to employees who have worked at least for a year at the organisation and have demonstrated a certain minimum level of performance in their last appraisal. This interval could provide opportunities for employees to gain their manager's trust and provide managers greater assurance that employees will continue to be productive when working from home. Transparency in criteria regarding who can and cannot telecommute could also minimise fairness concerns among employees. It also communicates to employees that telecommuting is not a right, but a mutually beneficial work arrangement that is contingent on satisfactorily meeting business needs.

In most cases, telecommuting should initially be limited to one or two days a month, so that employees and their managers have the opportunity to adjust to the new work arrangement. This frequency can be gradually increased to one or two days a week, based on mutual agreement. Such part-time telecommuting arrangements reflect the reality of how telecommuting is implemented worldwide. They balance employees' needs for flexibility with managers' requirements for face time and direct supervision.

Full-time telecommuting arrangements where employees work primarily at home on most working days are the exception. Given the research showing that relationships with co-workers are damaged when employees work from home three or more days a week, full-time telecommuting should be offered only after careful consideration. For instance, rather than lose a valuable employee whose spouse is transferred to a different city, the firm may offer the individual an opportunity to work from home full time, from the new location. Or, they may offer full-time telecommuting for a limited duration on compassionate grounds to an employee who is dealing with a family member who is sick.

Finally, firms should recognise that employee productivity when working from home also depends on organisational and managerial support. Employees should be provided with the right training, equipment, and technology support to be able to work effectively at home. Managers should be trained on best practices about supervision of remote employees.

Telecommuting holds a great deal of promise for Indian employees, many of whom put up with long commutes, traffic snarls, and pollution on their way to work. This not only affects their energy levels before they arrive at work, it also leaves them with less energy and time after work to deal with family demands. Employees are also increasingly concerned with work-life balance as they seek to manage the conflicting demands from work and family domains. Organisations that pay careful attention to the design and implementation of telecommuting arrangements stand to gain significant benefits from engaged, productive, and loyal employees.