Telecommuting: 3 Myths Busted, 3 Benefits Revealed - InformationWeek

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Telecommuting: 3 Myths Busted, 3 Benefits Revealed

Telecommuting is growing, but despite a plethora of research there's no clear consensus about whether or not it's successful. A large-scale review of the data reveals what we know and what we misunderstand about the benefits of telecommuting.

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Researchers from the University of South Florida, Baruch College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undertook a massive review of much of the available research that has been conducted on telecommuting and the workplace. Their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. What they found is that we have a lot to learn about how telecommuting affects us. Mixed in with the uncertainty are some useful tidbits for enterprises and employees.

Telecommuting is complicated to define. We know that it is growing. One report cited in the study said that 88% of companies now offer some form of telecommuting. The article cites estimates that 3.3 million Americans are telecommuting. All indications are that number will rise due to globalization of the economy.

What is telecommuting? For the purposes of the study, the authors defined it this way:

Telecommuting is a work practice that involves members of an organization substituting a portion of their typical work hours (ranging from a few hours per week to nearly full-time) to work away from a central workplace -- typically principally from home -- using technology to interact with others as needed to conduct work tasks.

(Image: Logan Ingalls via Flickr)

(Image: Logan Ingalls via Flickr)

In other words, telecommuting isn't limited to a full-time work-from-home situation. A flexible arrangement counts, too. That will be important as we get into the findings.

Perhaps the best way to figure out what we do know about telecommuting is first to list what we don't know. Here are some common myths or anecdotal impressions of telecommuting that we can't support with data. It doesn’t mean some might not be true (or true for some telecommuters but not all), but we don't have data to support it.

3 Telecommuting Myths

  • It helps us with work-life balance. The literature reviewed in the study was mixed at best, and pointed mostly to the idea that working from home doesn't help. Interestingly enough, they speculated the reason is that working from home simply increased family obligations at home.
  • It helps with employee retention. The perception among proponents of telecommuting has been that flexible work arrangements around telecommuting might make people more likely to stay with an arrangement that helped them. It turns out, probably because of the growth in telecommuting, that people are as willing to leave a job with a telecommuting arrangement as they are to leave a job without it.
  • It hurts relationships with my managers or chances at promotion. No study has been able to show definitive proof that people are scored lower on evaluations or are promoted less often for working from home than their in-office counterparts. However, the study does point out that, for the most part, people with work flexibility are already high performers or in roles where the practice is common. This is one to watch as telecommuting becomes more common.

It is hard to pin down the exact pros and cons of telecommuting, because it means so many different things. For example, a person who works from home one day a week and spends four days in an office has an entirely different experience than someone who works from home five days per week and hasn't seen his or her boss in person for a year.

One of the major factors in success or failure of telecommuting is social isolation. The benefits of telecommuting are often hindered by the fact that telecommuting workers might not interact with their team enough. One area the researchers stressed was finding ways to mitigate social isolation.

Successful telecommuting relationships had at least three common traits: Workers had great relationships with managers and their colleagues; teams had good information exchange best practices in place; and the workers had jobs with a fair amount of autonomy.

3 Telecommuting Benefits

If all three of the above factors were in place, workers could expect important benefits from telecommuting:

  • Lower work stress and less exhaustion. Shortened commutes, increased flexibility, and comfortable surroundings lead people to report lower burnout and stress rates that are statistically significant.
  • Higher performance. The data was interesting on this front. Studies that relied on self-reported metrics of success reported lower performance. People were harder on their performance at home. However, studies that relied on manager reported metrics or independently measurable data found workers were more productive and got higher ratings from their managers. It makes you wonder if people "goofed off" more at home but still got more work done in the time they were working. Whatever the reason, workers do better with some telecommuting mixed in.
  • Higher job satisfaction. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the study. Those with flexibility to work from home had higher job satisfaction than before they were telecommuting, but only to a point. According to one of the studies reviewed by the researchers, those who worked 15.1 hours or less at home had the highest increases in job satisfaction. After 15.1 hours, the satisfaction gains decreased or flattened. Eventually, those working from home for four or five days had lower job satisfaction due to social isolation.

Lower stress and higher performance? Seems like a no-brainer to start letting your workers all spend at least 15.1 hours at home, right?

Not so fast. There was one major area where telecommuting was shown to hurt enterprises -- innovation. Innovation relies on information exchange, and information exchange, you will remember, is one of the areas in which you need a really good plan to make telecommuting work. Companies who failed to integrate information exchange into their telecommuting policies found their telecommuters and the teams they were on to be less innovative. In the long run that situation could lead to underperformance.

In other words, there's the crux of the whole telecommuting issue. If you don't have plans and practices in place to wholly integrate telecommuters into meetings, discussions with colleagues, and other work flow, you may find it helps workers be happier without giving you what you need.

[Remember when so many people made fun of Marissa Meyers for saying this? Read Innovation: Disperse or Congregate.]

The findings point to one obvious solution to this problem -- allowing for only part-time telecommuting. Part-time telecommuting clearly gets the biggest benefits in terms of engagement and performance. It prevents social isolation. It allows for knowledge transfer when the teams are together in person, but it doesn't chain your people to their desks.

When part-time telecommuting is not possible, you need to make a conscious effort to ensure either that you can afford to leave telecommuters alone in their mostly autonomous jobs, or that your team specializes in knowledge transfer. The researchers point out that companies like Apple and Google, which make products for workplace collaboration and remote work, had the least problems with social isolation. In other words, it can be done if you use the resources well. Technology is making it easier.

Unfortunately, the concept of telecommuting is so broad, the findings can't be more definitive than that. Working one day at home is not the same as spending a week working from home. Managers and their skills and attitudes differ. Personal temperaments differ, and even job types can change the success or failure of a telecommuting arrangement. Still, these guidelines will help you decide when telecommuting can work best, and how to employ it.

What do you think? Have you ever telecommuted, or managed someone who has? Do these findings match your experience? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
10/15/2015 | 1:48:35 PM
Re: Innovation
@jastroff- i agree that sometimes there is no substitute for being there. But at the ame time most ad hoc innovaiton comes from people syaing "we've got this problem" and someone who happens to be nearby saying, "oh, why don't you do x?"

I think of that as the lunch room innovaiton.

the lunch room innovaiton can be solved by making it more formalized. I think one problem that we have in the enterprise is that we're afraid to talk about out challenges. We think talking about challenges is mentioning failure. 

Wouldn't it make sense for every person and team in an enterprise to maintain a "my biggest pain points" board? Put these pain points in a space where everyone can see them easily. And then when people have a minute, they can look at the board and brainstorm about what they can do. this seems especially good for IT. If IT has a solution to someone's pain point they are truly serving the organization the way they should.

With a formal pain points board you get back some of the random lunch conversation where innovaiton happens.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
10/13/2015 | 9:51:39 AM
Innovation
@dave -- spot on re: innovation

>> There was one major area where telecommuting was shown to hurt enterprises -- innovation. Innovation relies on information exchange, and information exchange, you will remember, is one of the areas in which you need a really good plan to make telecommuting work. 

In addition to larer systems, there are mobile-based apps like SLACK and others which are hanging around. Sometimes there's no substitute for being there when it comes to brainstorming, but at least with collaboration systems a company can have access to thought leaders and consultants who might otherwise never be on site, except at great expense, and who can help with innovation.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
10/12/2015 | 12:48:58 PM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
@Michelle- i do meet my colleagues once or twice a year. And I see them at conferences and other areas. My experience is that seeing someone once or twice a year does not make me feel more connected. it requires constant communication via email, instant message, phone etc to achieve that. Real life meetings allow me to put a face to a name, but it requires daily or more frequent contact, in my mind, to make a team.

Thankfully, that is easily accomplished with modern technology.
Gigi3
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Gigi3,
User Rank: Ninja
10/12/2015 | 6:37:53 AM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
"I have an arrangement where I work from home and go to an office about 3 days a week, probably 15-20 hours during the workweek. I think this works with tools like Slack and Asana. "

Daniel, most of the companies has similar type of proprietary collaborative tools, where employees are updating their day to day activities. Such tools are very useful, especially a part of the team is working either at client side or off-shore or in different shifts; where they are not physically meeting or talking each other.
Gigi3
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Gigi3,
User Rank: Ninja
10/12/2015 | 6:34:10 AM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
"Does your group travel to once or twice a year in-person meetings to make everyone feel like they're connected in real life too? Do you think that kind of meeting event is helpful for distributed telecommuting teams"

Michelle, in software industry it won't happen because most of the time a part of the team is always at client side or on off-shore project mode. So meeting all the members together in a physical location is very difficult or impossible.
Gigi3
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Gigi3,
User Rank: Ninja
10/12/2015 | 6:13:14 AM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
"This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the study. Those with flexibility to work from home had higher job satisfaction than before they were telecommuting, but only to a point"

David, this is true with certain set of peoples. I like to do my work at office than at home. But I can see some of my friends are taking work at home, where they can manage their personal and office works in a parallel way. But I never like to take my office works to home; for me home is a place to take rest and make me comfortable with family. 
Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Ninja
10/4/2015 | 4:49:06 PM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
@David, I'm curious about your experiences. Does your group travel to once or twice a year in-person meetings to make everyone feel like they're connected in real life too? Do you think that kind of meeting event is helpful for distributed telecommuting teams?
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
10/4/2015 | 3:07:17 AM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
@Dave, thank you, a lot of the interesting info... make me think... as problem vs solution ...
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
10/1/2015 | 5:26:23 PM
Re: Mixed Arrangement
@danielcawrey- I don't know if it counts as a story, but I know I feel like every once in a while someone has a solution to a problem that would have made my life easier, except I didn't talk to them about the problem for months because I didn't see them regularly.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
10/1/2015 | 4:31:23 PM
Mixed Arrangement
I have an arrangement where I work from home and go to an office about 3 days a week, probably 15-20 hours during the workweek. I think this works with tools like Slack and Asana. Yet I do wonder what the negative aspects are of not spending as much time as a team. Does anyone have any stories surrounding that?
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