Telecommuting: Value Add or Risky Fluff?

Dialogue around telecommuting (or telework) captured a lot of attention in 2013 with some high profile companies, including Yahoo and Best Buy, sparking new debate over the value of these programs. While many organizations continue to experience the benefits of well-designed and administered telecommute programs, headlines about other organizations abandoning or restricting their programs sparked new debate over an old question;

Does a telecommute program add value, or is it a risky and inefficient means to provide employee flexibility?

Whichever side you take in this debate, you can find plenty of evidence to support your argument. Organizations that have implemented telecommute programs through carefully designed plans that are strategically aligned to support business goals are likely realizing the value of telework. On the other hand, well-intended organizations that allow employees to work remotely without a strategic plan risk feeling pain similar to those that have made recent headlines.

Let Business Strategy Lead the Way

While at times telecommuting may appear to be a solution in search of a problem, many organizations with successful programs have identified strategic business goals before considering it as part of their strategy. Some of these business goals include:

  • Business Expense Reduction – Real estate expense reduction can be significant when owned or rented space is replaced by home or other remote work arrangements. But the existing space needs to be disposed of, or the remote work arrangements become an additional expense.
  • Business Continuity – While bad weather, building emergencies, even flu and other communicable diseases have regular and significant impact on productivity, an effective telework program can markedly reduce the risks and impact by decentralizing portions of the workforce.
  • Employee Engagement and Retention – In 2012, Cornell Assistant Professor Brad Bell surveyed employees of a 30,000+ employee company where 40% of employees work from home on a full-time basis. About 5,000 office-based and remote employees were asked to rank a list of potential advantages offered by telecommuting. Schedule flexibility and care of family members were identified as advantages, but savings in money and time were ranked at the top by a significant margin. The same company experiences consistently higher rates of retention and engagement among its telecommuters, with the same or better performance, and has realized opportunities to retain valuable talent who would otherwise be forced to leave due to spouse transfers, family illness or other family/personal issues.
  • Talent Acquisition – Let’s face it, some talent is hard to find. The ability to recruit for essential skill sets wherever they are, avoiding the need for relocation, can offer a huge competitive advantage; as can the ability to place stakeholder-facing employees where you need them without the need for local office space or extensive travel.

Aligning the Business and Telecommute Strategies

A well-designed telecommute strategy includes the establishment of criteria for when and how it will be used. The business goals and strategy form the basis upon which these criteria are designed. Some strategic organizations have established criteria that focus on a combination of three factors:

  • The Work Itself – Jobs in which employees work independently, and typically communicate with customers and coworkers electronically, are likely to be better suited than those that rely on regular face-to-face interaction and collaboration. In any case, it may be appropriate to limit eligibility to those jobs that serve the needs of the business strategy.
  • The Employee – Telecommuting does not work for everyone. Some selection criteria are in order to ensure that only employees with the skills, behaviors, and performance to succeed are moved to a remote environment.
  • The Work Environment – You want to be at least as disciplined with telework as you are in the office when it comes to protecting your data, property, products, services, customers, and employees by ensuring a safe and secure workplace. Policies and procedures should be reviewed and updated to ensure they accommodate new work arrangements, and expectations around these should be clearly communicated.

Training and Change Management Are Important

As telework arrangements are deployed, training and change management programs will increase the odds for success. While some of this may be dismissed as “common sense,” it can contribute significantly to institutional learning about new workplace models, and help to shape the culture change that’s about to take place. Consider focusing on:

  • deliberate additional communication with and among telecommuters to account for the lack formal and informal face time;
  • clear communication of expectations for managers and employees;
  • tips and guidance for managing work and time in the absence of normal workplace queues;
  • methods that ensure privacy and potential interruptions are managed appropriately (no working/daycare arrangements);
  • planning face-to-face meetings as often as possible. When time, distance and budgets present challenges, use technology to pull the team together virtually and include team-building activities similar to those you would include locally.

A couple more thoughts:

When implementing a new program consider doing so through a series of pilots measuring results and adjusting along the way. I’ve seen real success with the creation of a Telework Employee Resource Group/Affinity Group. Like other ERGs, they allow employees with like interests and challenges to share ideas and best practices, participate in supplemental training, provide feedback and ideas to management, and support employee engagement.

I’ve seen its challenges, but it’s been my experience that telecommuting is a great workforce solution when it is designed and implemented as a strategic initiative aligned to support identified business goals. What has your experience been? Have you seen it succeed; seen it struggle or fail? What are some unique ways in which you’ve seen it used, and what were the outcomes?