Telecommuting Isn’t for Everyone, And Here’s Why

In a paper on the state of telecommuting, Telework Research Network acknowledges that the U.S. workforce is increasingly mobile, “but, beyond that broad statement, we know little about the rate of increase in mobility — how often people are out of the office, where they are, and what they’re doing. For that matter, there’s no agreed-upon method of defining who they are.”

Or isn’t there? Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, joined forces with Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, in order to find out how telecommuting impacts the worker, the boss, and the business. 250 of Ctrip’s employees volunteered as lab rats in the experiment, with half being deployed at home and half in the office. They found that the benefits were short term.

Good news first

The firm reported that the home-based employees worked 9.5 times more and were 13 percent more productive than their office-bound counterparts. Quitting rates were reduced by 50%, which indicated that the homed worker was happier.

The employer saw immediate benefits as well. Reduced office space and equipment meant that Ctrip was able to save $2,000 per employee, which is none to shabby if you bother to do the math. Overall, the results were good at the end of the test, but some doubt lingered. There were also some key negative factors that the experiment ultimately uncovered.

Human contact is underrated

Okay, we promised to give you the good news first. Now, for some not-so-good news. According to the results of the experiment, the home-bound workers reported quite a few downsides as well. Chief among them, the inability to climb the ranks. Apparently those punching the clock every day at 9:00 stood a much better chance of getting noticed and promoted.

Secondly, 50% of those who worked at home asked to return to the office because (believe it or not) they were lonely. The same people also reported that they felt they were missing out on opportunities to create new connections and new career paths.

Take the good with the bad

It appears that there is a silver lining to the whole telecommuting thing, though. Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, says it’s actually a combination of both that actually makes telecommuting a winning idea. With the research arm Telework Research Network, Lister concluded that “the sweet spot” is to have the best of both worlds. Professor Bloom seems to agree:

“It may be a case, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Or it might be that you’re not drinking in the bar with your boss. Or it could be you’re not managing your employees as well if you’re not around them,” he said.

Check the job description first

It’s true that remote working produces good results for many types of organizations and many types of employees, but not all of them. Scott Langdon writing for Entrepreneur remarks that sales positions are well suited for telecommuting, because they don’t require a large amount of collaboration or technology support. On the other hand, jobs like that of a manager, public relations, and IT positions require face-to-face interaction.

So, at the end of the day, it matters how you apply telecommuting and, perhaps more importantly, how much. The benefits are clear, but only if you don’t overdo it.

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