Top 5 reasons to let employees telecommute

Work from home

Should a company let its people telecommute? Is it good or bad for productivity? Does working from home make employees more stressed because it blurs the boundary between work and private life? Or is it good for families because it cuts down on time commuting and gives people more time at home? And is it true that most of the employees who work from home do so in the nude?

Pennsylvania State University have just published a meta-study that looks at these questions. It’s called “The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences.” Catchy, huh?

The study analyzes the results of 46 other studies on telecommuting involving a total of 13.000 employees. The overall conclusion? Telecommuting is good for both employees and for the workplace. You can find the whole study here (pdf).

Main findings

Here are the findings that struck me as being the most interesting. For some reason, the study completely neglected to look at the nude/clothed aspect of telecommuting. On that one, your guess is a good as mine.

1: Telecommuting gives employees a sense of freedom at work
In other words, you feel that you have more control over your work environment. In fact, this turned out to be the root cause of many of the other effects found in the study.

2: Telecommuting is good for the family
A lot of people fear that telecommuting harms family life because it blurs the boundary between work and private life and pressures people to work when they’re at home.

This study found that the opposite is true and that telecommuting reduced conflicts between work and family.

Telecommuting
From the study: The main effects of telecommuting

3: Working from home 1 or 2 days a week does not harm relations to co-workers or managers
However, working from home 3 days had a positive effects on the family, but also had a negative effect on workplace relationships.

The study also says that managers must adapt to accommodate telecommuting, or it won’t work:

4: Telecommuting makes employees more productive
The study looked at both self-perceived efficiency and how efficient managers thought their telecommuting employees were.

And while employees themselves did not feel more productive, the study did find a positive link between telecommuting and the manager’s rating of employees’ efficiency.

The study also looked for signs that spending less time in the office would harm employees’ career expectations by giving them less time to demonstrate value to managers. The study found no indication of this.

5: Telecommuting makes people happier at work
There was a positive link between telecommuting and job satisfaction. The study also showed that employees who can work from home are less likely to quit.

My take

All of these findings make a lot of sense to me, and it just underlines what I always say: Who knows better than you, when and where you do your best work?

I’ve always assumed that the employees of any given company are responsible adults, capable of making decisions for themselves. If they’re not, why were they hired in the first place?

The great thing about this study is that it clearly suggests that even though the effects may not be huge huge, telecommuting is good for both employees and for the workplace.

Your take

What about you? Do you work from home? Would you like to? How would working from outside the office a few days a week affect you?

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28 thoughts on “Top 5 reasons to let employees telecommute”

  1. I work from home all the time – because the company I work for is based in Cornwall and I live in Cumbria – opposite ends of England.

    I pop down to the office on the plane (carbon footprint ouch) once a month or so to meet with the boss and socialise with my colleagues, otherwise I’m on my own.

    I love it. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful and I can get lots of work done. If I need a chat with any of my workmates I just pick up the phone. When I go down to Cornwall and am in the office, I find it really hard to concentrate because of the noise!

    The downside is you need quite a lot of self-discipline to work from home. There’s always distractions and of course nobody can see you. Even the housework sometimes looks very tempting!

    I wouldn’t change back though!

    M

  2. I *wish* I could work from home. Officially, my workplace is supposed to be open to this, but so far they’ve refused to obtain the tools we’d need to do this. (Secured laptops, essentially.) Management, however, all has secured laptops, even though they almost never work from home. The whole situation irritates me – if they don’t want us to work from home sometimes, they should just be honest about it and explain why.

    I’m 100% sure my productivity would be the same, after all, we track our work religiously online anyway.

  3. I suspect there’s a huge difference between telecommuting a few days a week and working from home all or almost all the time (as I’m doing right now). Any studies on the latter situation?

  4. My employer is open to telecommuting and has positive outlooks on it. The problem for my department is that we are in a call center and don’t have the technology available to work from home when inbound. My team is not inbound on the phone, but placing callbacks, something we can easily do from home. Since its not “fair” to the inbound people, we’re not allowed. I have a 110 mile roundtrip commute every day and having two days a week to work from home would have many benefits. For one, it would save me about $35 – 40/week in fuel. It would save me 6 hours of commute time. When I have worked from home, my productivity has always been higher due to fewer distractions.

  5. doesn’t work for my employer, they have a “if you’re good enough to telecommute you’re good enough to come in to the office” mentality. Which is the line I’ve heard before. They also break alot of other ideas in your posts however.

  6. I work remotely 100% of the time and love it! Everyone is different, but I think it’s safe to say I get several times more done in a week working remotely than I ever could working in an office.

    Not only do I work remotely, but I remotely manage a team of Oracle consultants who also work remotely from all over the country and even in Canada (I’m in the USA.) It does have its unique challenges, but I have great people who work for me and we all know I’ll hear about it if they aren’t getting their work done.

    So I’m saving hundreds of gallons of gas a year, can live anywhere, manage employees all over the country and can work for clients anywhere in the world. For more perspective, consider this… I didn’t meet my boss until I’d been working for him for almost 3 months!

  7. Ask M, I’ve been on both sides of this equation, and it’s not much different from managing people who sit next door to you. After all, even when you are next door, are you actually watching your employees every minute of the day to make sure they’re working? Or do you judge them by their results?

    I’ve managed a geographically far-flung team. We met by phone conference once a week or more, otherwise did everything by email. That was a while ago; these days I’d do a lot more via IM, shared wikis, maybe webcam or some other kind of video conference system, depending on cost and convenience.

    As with any other management, it’s mostly about trusting your employees to behave like grownups, and treating them accordingly.

  8. Hi Deirdre,

    Many thanks for that – fair point. I’ve had one manager who sat next door to me and asked “What are you working on?” ten times a day – maddening!!

    M

  9. I read this post the very day I resigned my job because I couldn’t stand the four hours I spent commuting to it most days.

    I work(ed) at a company which promised I could telecommute one or two days a week. As it turned out, I was allowed to work from home, but there really wasn’t full support for it. As with reader Kuri, I wasn’t entrusted with a company laptop, nor could I use my own as my work computer. The company culture also favored lots and lots of spur-of-the-moment onsite meetings to talk over projects, rather than writing down specifications and placing them somewhere online and accessible from anywhere.

    So it’s not enough for a company to say it allows telecommuting. Telecommuters must be able to access their work materials from anywhere, and must be included in decisions via e-mail, IM, or conference call. Yes, it takes some planning to avoid ad hoc in-person meetings– but what project wouldn’t benefit from that?

  10. If I had a mac at home I would telecommute a few days of the week in a heartbeat. We are in a small office, so my day is often disrupted by tasks like answering the phone (99% of the time not for me), people unrelatd to my job wandering into my space and otherwise breaking my focus.

    Perhaps I’ll have to try to convince folks to buy me a mac laptop so I can work from home sometimes and spend quality time with my cats.

  11. It’s nice reading this study, but at the same time, you should be careful with meta-analysis, and recognize that it isn’t primary work being done. Meta-analysis studies have a tendency of being off in major ways. Having read the methodology described in the study, it’s fair enough in some areas of comparison, and makes me cringe in others, but that’s typical for any meta-analysis. Just be cautious with these kinds of studies.

    Deirdr Straughan (“commuting some days versus all days”), the study compared other studies some of which measured the difference between working partially from home during a week, and all the time from home, so there are studies, and this study tried to include those finding as well. Generally, the study saw improvement for more days off, but I don’t know if I’d characterize the difference as huge, but it was greater.

    Ask M (“managing remotely”), I work for a small company where the majority of people working together aren’t in the same time zone, if even the same country (between company employees and our clients too). Managing remotely is all about communication and expectations. I’d say it like this:

    When can I get a hold of person X, and when can I expect to hear back from person X if I can’t get a hold of them now? When can I expect to see results from person X, and how do I actually see those results?

    You ask those same questions when you’re 5 feet from the person or 5,000 miles from the person. The key is open communication and established expectations between both persons. My company does it over phones or email primarly, which really isn’t much different from large companies I’ve worked for where you boss is in the next building, but still close enough to see daily. In most cases, it’s all your mental state.

    Personally, I prefer coming into an office. I can’t work at home. It’s too much of a relaxed environment with too many distractions. Right now, I’m more productive in an office space, but I’ve found that most people I work with are more productive when they don’t coming into the office. Still, I take advantage of a flexible work schedule even if I’m in the office normally, so I really encourage others to work from home to make sure I can protect my own flexibility even if I’m not doing it the way they are.

  12. I have, on occasion, worked from home. Usually, this was when i was either sick or had friends visiting from out of town. I normally work in a small, open office where all the employees can see and hear each other easily. This can be really distracting when the developers are arguing over code and one of our sales staff is wound up talking with a potential client. I find it really hard to concentrate. On the days when I work from home, it usually takes me about half as long to get the same amount of work done.

    My company has no policies about telecommuting, although my particular job duties are such that I could do my work from any place I had an outlet and a wireless connection. I have thought about asking to work from home one day a week, partly to give myself one guaranteed productive day a week, and partly to give myself a day free from office politics and the usual drama (sadly, my boss is something of a drama queen). If I could, I would probably work from home ever other day, as that would be plenty of time to keep up with what the other people in the office are doing, and to make it to any meetings that might be required. Fortunately, we don’t have very many ad-hoc meetings.

  13. Ask M: Thanks – good to know it can work, even when you get to the office as rarely as you do. And I guess the office offers one set of distractions (phone calls, co-workers, etc) and your home offers another (family, TV, doing the dishes) …

    Kuri: Heh – this just shows how annoying it is to have an explicit policy stating one thing – when the reality is the exact opposite. Maybe this study could convince some of the managers to try it?

    Ben: I never got that particular argument. If we can’t make it good for everyone, we should all suffer equally… Where does that come from? I realize it’s simple… but it ain’t exactly smart.

    Maybe you could offer the office-bound people something else that would make them happy..?

    Matt: if youre good enough to telecommute youre good enough to come in to the office … That makes absolutely zero sense. Whats the thinking behind it?

    Jon: That’s fantastic! I love how you make this work.

    Deirdr: That’s excellent use of the tools that exist out there. There are so many ways of staying in touch today.

    I suspect that for many managers, it’s a matter of trusting that “even if I can’t see my people working, they still are.” And that leap some managers just can’t make…

    Michael: Good point. And in any case, it’s about the results, not the hours.

    Smix: Four-hour commute? Ouch!

    And I agree – making this work takes
    1) The right attitude from management
    2) The right tools that allow you to work remotely

    And maybe also
    3) Employees who actually want to work remotely

    but it doesn’t seem like there’s a shortage of those :o)

    Amy: Try! Throw this study at them if it helps :o)

    Matt: Thanks for the perspective. I have no experience with these kinds of studies. Is there somewhere I can go to learn more on how to read them and what to watch for?

    budding gardener: Sounds like working from home occasionally would be good for you AND the company. Give it a whirl – I’d love to know how it goes.

  14. I work from home three days a week. I get a lot more done at home because I don’t chat with coworkers or customers, but chatting with those people is a source of essential information. So I like the balance of telecommuting and onsite work.
    I do the very dull things (like routine link requests from vendors and directories, for example) onsite, and the thought-intensive things at home.

  15. It seems obvious there are numerous benefits to telecommuting. I think most employees value the autonomy to handle their own workload at a pace that works for them. That just leads to employees being happier and all companies want happy employees that are engaged because it makes them more productive. More companies should give their employees the option to telecommute and of course support their employees in whatever way necessary in order to make it a positive experience!

  16. I have worked at home for more than 6 years; both as baseline employee and as corporate level. I helped create a mentor program for the company, which was implemented. From creation to implementation, as always, changes happen. What I have learned from this is that while it sounds great to people to work from home, the reality of it is not so great. For the low to mid level worker. The self-discipline is one issue. The other issue is the isolation and still another are the interruptions. Even the most goal-directed person has difficulty. For the rest of the population, they end up terminating at some point. There is still a gap between the mid and upper level corporate employee and the lower level worker. Corporate employees tend to adjust to working at home and have the self discipline to make it work if only because of the nature of their jobs. I spend half the week in meetings on the phone and virtual conference rooms with the corporate office and the other half filling out spread sheets, emailing, and conferencing with the employees assigned to me. By and large, humans are not solitary creatures; even the most anti-social of people need human contact. The average employee needs to have some contact, support, feedback, from coworkers and supervisors, and the isolation does not promote successful employment. When I train people, all via virtual conference rooms, email, and conference calls, the intermittant contact, plus support and teaching these workers how to use the tools the compay provides and advising them on strategies to promote success and production, then as a rule, retention increases. I think that companies who utilize home-based workers, need to also teach these people how to work at home; not just give them the tools and expect that all will work out. The bottom line is that people want/need some contact; they need feedback, and they need to feel valued and want to be loyal to their company. If that company utilizes a whole-team/person approach to training and implementing it across the board in a telecommuting environment, then there will be huge success not only for the lower level worker but for the company itself. I think that if companies who deal with this type of work force want to stay competative, they need to do more than supply tools and train people in them, they need to support and nurture them as well.

  17. As I sit here trying, trying being the key word, to read the comments I am listening to laughing, talking on the phone, someone talking about doing cart wheels, crazy computer sounds alerting my co-worker that they have a new email. My name was called 3 times within the past 2 minutes. How fustrating!! This article really opened my eyes to all the distractions that exist in the traditional office. Of course, realizing some days are much worse than others obviously.

    I then walked down the hall way to get away and get a cup of water. I was stopped by 5 people in the hall with questions or just a “what’s up”. I definetely would not experience that at home!

    Managers if you are here considering letting your workers work remotely just listen to your work area and what goes on for 1 hour. When I have experienced working from home I am a lot more productive. Currently I sit in an open room with cubicles; you hear everything and everyone interrupts you. At home that’s not a factor.

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