The real telecommuting challenge

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Print this page by Andrew L. Kleinl
]The news has been filled with reaction to the announcement that CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, wanted employees in the office and not telecommuting. As with many news and business stories, the issue is more complex than what can be crammed into a few column inches. Whether allowing telecommuting is good or bad policy is not black and white. Here are some perspectives that might add some robustness to this discussion.

Underneath the telecommuting issue is the ability of people to communicate and relate. Since the social scientists tell us that human communication is as much about visual cues as it is about verbal exchange, it is not surprising that email and telephone based communication is going to be devoid of much of those cues and lead to a very different exchange. This will likely be an exchange with less nuanced understanding of what is being said and what is really meant . This need for a full exchange of words and gesture is why diplomats travel the world to negotiate difficult issues face to face and do not rely on communication by phone or email.

But what is telecommuting? Telecommuting can be conceptualized as existing in three formats . And, telecommuting probably is best reserved for only one, full time working away from the office. The others, split time and flex time might be labeled teleworking.

1. Full time working away from the office: This is when employees almost never come to the office. They telecommute five days a week from elsewhere, usually from home. In this scenario building or maintaining relationships with people is extremely difficult. The number of people who do this as a percentage of the workforce is very small, estimates are that this is probably much fewer than 1 percent.

2. Split time schedules: Teleworking two to three days a week and in the office with co-workers two to three days a week is a formula that improves communication and connection over full-time teleworking while providing a lot of work flexibility. There is some research behind these numbers indicating that this is the optimum mix for those that split time. The recent news articles reference that no more than about 10 percent of the work force splits time telecommuting. This number has been stable for more than a decade. Why, given the exponentially improved technology over that same time period? In part, many jobs cannot be done remotely — hospitality workers, restaurant workers, school safety officers, nurses, sports team players and coaches come to mind. But, there are other jobs that likely are more amendable to these spit time schedules. Analysts, administrators, bookkeepers, finance professionals, reporters might be examples where this schedule could work well.

3. Flexible schedules: This is teleworking on an as-needed basis. This type of teleworking is ideal when you need to attend a child’s recital , a hot water heater no longer works and this requires meeting the plumber, or other life events that press on people to be able to mesh their personal lives with their work life. If organizations provide this flexibility (and technology support) to work like this, employees feel valued and supported. Surveys of employee attitudes about employer -provided benefits repeatedly have shown that flexible schedules are nearly as highly valued as health care, and this flexibility actually enhances employee loyalty and productivity.
And, those pesky caveats are important. There are some individuals who can defy the odds and work off campus all the time and still make and keep connections. A real example is a person who followed a spouse to a country 12 time zones away and yet continued to do her job as if she were still in the office next door. But, this is such a remarkable story — and such a remarkable person — that despite its being something that occurred several years ago, this is still spoken about with awe by co-workers and managers. But, just as true, some people do not do well if they are not “engaged” fully on campus nearly every day. They may prefer the office to home or find the separation between the two critical to their focus on the tasks at hand. Another case in point is a good friend and mentor could only work in chaos. He telecommuted a few days a week, and his house was filled with children, dogs, cats, birds, ringing phones and noise from every quarter. His office was little different — and his many students learned to adapt to thinking, problem solving, and engaging in the whirlwind… or found another mentor. He loved this and in the din he rose to become a very senior partner in his firm.

The type of work also impacts whether the work can be done, or done as well remotely as when interacting with others. Creative work, such as developing a new concept for software or or writing a script for a commercial or a weekly sit-com, might benefit from an excited exchange of ideas, white-boarding, and full message contact (works, gesture, tone, expression, ideas). Database administration, accounting, research might work well — maybe even better — without the office interruptions and more spreadsheet and fact-based communication.

Telecommuting is not one thing. It is at least three — full time, split schedule, and flexibility — so the conversation about “good” or “bad” needs this first parsing. Individual personalities, needs, circumstances influence what work pattern is right for each person. And, the type of work being done influences what work patterns are possible. In a perfect world organizations would structure their policies such that managers could accommodate the variations in work and people in ways that are fair, produce the greatest satisfaction for the employee and yield the productivity and culture of success. As with most things human, the issue is more complex than simple.

Andrew L. Klein, Ph.D, is a principal with Richmond-based human resources consulting firm The Titan Group.

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