A Telecommuting Tradeoff: Less Collaboration - InformationWeek
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8/15/2017
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A Telecommuting Tradeoff: Less Collaboration

Some companies believe that collaboration in today's agile workplace suffers when employees are full-time telecommuters.

Some businesses believe agile-like development approaches are incompatible with full-time telecommuting. The key word is full-time, which accounts for about one-in-five telecommuters.

Agile emphasizes fast-paced iterations and rapid communications. It is a collaborative approach that's also applied outside of software development.

Workplace flexibility -- a top request by prospective employees -- means offering telecommuting. This can be as little as one day or an afternoon a week on a regular basis or as needed. To compete for top candidates, firms have to offer this flexibility.

But full-time telecommuting is not something all firms want to offer. Some see it as an impediment to speed and collaboration.

Image: Pixabay/goumbik
Image: Pixabay/goumbik

Telecommuting imposes a “tax” paid in productivity, said Manny Medina, CEO of Seattle-based Outreach, a sales automation software company. To be effective “you need the team there because you are iterating fast. You are communicating ideas quickly.” Collaboration tools, such as Slack or Zoom video conferencing, aren't substitutes for in-person engagements, he said.

“The centrifugal forces of how quickly things are moving,” will push telecommuters “out of the decision-making loop,” said Medina. The group dynamic is this: “If you have four of five people in the office and one-person remote, the four are not going to call the remote person.”

But Outreach allows workplace flexibility. It gives its engineers one to two days a week of “heads down” time to work from home. This "puts some days off limits for making big decisions. That seems to work really well for us,” said Medina.

Telecommuting is growing. About 43% of employees worked remotely last year. That's up from 39% in 2012, according to a Gallup report released earlier this year. Of this number, 20% percent work remotely 100% of the time. It was 15% five years ago.

IBM created a stir this year when it reportedly ended full-time telecommuting for thousands of its employees. It wanted them to work on-site in “agile hubs.”

Manny Medina, Outreach
Manny Medina, Outreach

What IBM wants is agility and “self-managed, multi-disciplinary teams working together in physical spaces,” said Sam Ladah, IBM’s vice president of human resources, in a recent blog post. IBM allows affected employees flexibility to work from home when needed.

For many IBM employees, the policy had no impact. “IBM is not ending work from home: about one in five employees in North America work at home full time,” said Ladah.

IBM’s decision to curb telecommuting has critics.

“You can't hire the best and the brightest if they have to live within a decent commute of where you are,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a workforce strategy research group.

Lister says the connection between co-location and collaboration has not been proven. What has been proven is that “open offices are distracting and counterproductive,” these environments “are a particular nightmare for introverts who make up over 40% of employees,” and workplace flexibility is a top-rated benefit, she said.

“In this global, mobile society, whether people are nine floors, nine miles, or nine time zones away, they are connecting remotely,” said Lister.

[Read more from Patrick Thibodeau in MillerCoors' $100-million IT Lawsuit Warning.]

One firm that is keeping its development on-site, is ComplyRight, a provider of tools and expertise for HR compliance. About 50 of its 250 workers are developing SaaS-related apps and services.

ComplyRight's development takes place in the office. Developers are using agile methods, said Susan Drenning, the CEO of ComplyRight. These developers aren't working in a vacuum, she said.

“We’re developing something from the ground up,” said Drenning. “As decisions are made you need to be working back and forth.” The firm allows people to work remotely when they need to. 

But Drenning said it was the development team that determined that working in the office was the best approach. “We haven’t gotten a lot of request from our development teams to work remotely,” she said.

Susan Drenning, ComplyRight
Susan Drenning, ComplyRight

What firms such as Dell have discovered about telecommuting is that “flexibility” is “the number one topic” for job candidates, said Mohammed Chahdi, Dell’s global HR services director.

A recent internal survey by Dell showed that 58% of its employees work remotely at least one or more days a week.

Dell applies something of a test to telecommuting. “If you can do your job successfully, if you can make sure that your customer is still supported and that does not impact your overall productivity,” said Chahdi, then Dell “is absolutely open to the idea” of work flexibility for an employee. 

Patrick Thibodeau is a reporter covering enterprise technologies, including supercomputing, workplace trends and globalization. His work on outsourcing and H-1B visa issues has been widely cited, read on the floor of the U.S Senate, and has received national awards for ... View Full Bio

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