Rick Hampson, USA Today
Americans love telecommuting - strivers, slackers, everybody. We know it's supposed to save on corporate overhead and boost productivity. We don't really care. Not as long as there are leaves to rake, clothes to fold, pajamas to wear at noon, decks on which to work at sunset.
We love it for what it allows us and for what it spares us: the hour drive to the office with gas at $4 a gallon, the packed subway, the bigmouth in the next cubicle, the tight white collar.
It permits Monica Clarke to be a military spouse and still have a social media marketing career. It saves salesman Mike Belprez 200 miles and $50 a day on his commute. It lets Patti McCreary engineer back-end computer systems for a boss 3,000 miles away and still be around for her three preschoolers.
The loved one is never more cherished than when threatened, and so it's been a nervous fortnight for many telecommuters since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced plans to corral her telecommuters like cattle wandering the North 40.
It's true that Yahoo denied making any broad statement about the practice; that most telecommuters can distinguish their situation from that of their counterparts at Yahoo and Best Buy, another struggling company that's tightening its telecommuting policy; that many employers have too much invested in telecommuting to go back now.
But the Yahoo affair has forced us to consider the downside of a work style that has been hailed as the solution to everything from air pollution to the dog's need for an afternoon walk.
Ravi Shankar Gajendran, a University of Illinois business professor who's spent years studying telecommuting, says the furor "illustrates a fundamental tension about telecommuting: Is it a business strategy, or some sort of employee right, like health insurance?"
Translation: Is telecommuting good for employer or employee?
Both, Gajendran says. "Its benefits are modest but numerous. I don't see it going away."
Last month, Mayer said she would end Yahoo's work-at-home policy to foster collaboration and innovation by bringing employees physically together - All hands on deck!
Mayer, who joined Yahoo from Google last year, apparently was dismayed by the vacant parking spaces and cubicles at Yahoo headquarters, and by a check of VPN logs that reportedly showed a decided lack of remote worker engagement.
This came after Bank of America said late last year that it was reviewing its liberal telecommuting policy, and before Best Buy, where telecommuting was virtually an employee entitlement, announced that henceforth out-of-office work would be subject to negotiation between managers and workers.
As a result, "some of our clients are saying, 'Gee, did we do the wrong thing?'" says Kate Lister of the Telework Research network, who advises businesses on workplace issues.
Gajendran says an overreaction is understandable: "People see this as the canary in the coal mine, because Yahoo represents progressive technology. The fear is, 'If they could go back, what will stop others from doing the same?'"
Belprez, 49, is a floor covering industry salesman who works most of the time in a remote office near home in San Diego, rather than at his company's office 100 miles away in northern Orange County. "Companies are saying, 'We've worked with telecommuting for a while; now it's time to get a feel for what we're getting,'" he says. "I can see why they might feel the need to pull on the leash a bit."
Travis Clark, a reporter for a sports website who works at home outside Washington, says he's afraid the Yahoo and Best Buy moves show "that companies don't trust their employees, and blame struggles on the fact that they are letting them work from home, instead of looking elsewhere."
THE DOGS LIKE IT
It's unclear how many Americans telecommute (or "telework," to use the diplomatically correct term), in part because there are many definitions. Gajendran estimates that 5% of all workers in non-family businesses work at home at least one day a week, a percentage that has grown in recent years.
A Harris Poll taken Feb. 26 to March 4 found that a third of American workers who are not self-employed say they spend some time during normal business hours working from home. One in 10 say they work primarily or exclusively from home; 8% spend about half their time working there, 17% less than half their time. (Then there are the legions who spend the day at a job site, come home, and work some more - checking e-mail, filing reports, staying abreast of developments online, etc.)
Most who try telecommuting like it.
That includes Dale Lancaster, who unfortunately will start reporting to an office his company will open near his home north of Dallas on April 1. He lists 13 reasons why telecommuting has made him happy, including "my dogs make much better office mates than co-workers. ... They think I am fantastic and don't give me any crap."
A big reason employers like telecommuting is that employees do, which makes it easier to keep the workers and attract new ones. Gajendran notes that a decade ago, only one in 10 places listed on Fortune's "Best Companies to Work for" offered or allowed telecommuting. Today, 80% do.
Even people who don't telecommute like the idea. According to the Harris survey, more than four in five workers call working from home a "significant job perk" that enables employees to balance work and family needs. Almost two-thirds say it increases worker productivity. In a survey last fall of U.S. workers commissioned by Regus, a provider of remote work space, 88% said managers need to be more accepting of flexible working arrangements, such as telecommuting.
It's an article of faith among telecommuters that they get more done at home. "I did the cubicle monkey thing, twiddling my thumbs until it was 5 o'clock, and I hate to tell my old bosses this, but I never worked harder than I do now," says Monica Clarke, 30, who expects to keep working remotely when her soldier husband is transferred this year from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to Colorado Springs.
Many of the fears about telecommuting have been dispelled, according to Jessica Lipnack, co-author of the book Virtual Teams. For instance, MIT Professor Thomas Allen has showed that if people are more than 150 feet apart, the probability that they'll communicate frequently plummets. Similarly, it seems that diverse, far-flung talents often are best assembled not physically, but by phone, computer and satellite from around the nation and world.
HOW TO MAKE IT WORK
For telecommuting to succeed, employer and employee have to agree on terms and a plan. "It isn't something you just do," Lister says. "You don't just send people out of the office with a laptop and expect it to work."
Some elements of successful telecommuting:
- Make it about the work, not where the work is done.
Many telecommuters say Yahoo should be less concerned about employees' physical location than their productivity. Mayer, McCready says, should get rid of the people who aren't pulling their weight, not telecommuting itself. For telecommuting to work, "you must have deliverables - things that everyone agrees you've got to get done," says Greg Gibbons, 51, who works for TEKsystems, a provider of IT help desk support services. Although the company is based in Maryland, he got permission to work (when not at clients' sites) from home in Wilmington, N.C., 3 miles from the beach.
- Talk more, not less.
Lister says managers and remote workers need to communicate more often than if they were sharing an office, using all the tools - e-mail, IM, phone and, if necessary, video.
- Build bridges between insiders and outsiders.
Gajendran says that although research shows telecommuting does not hurt relations between managers and workers, employees who work away from their offices for more than half the week say relationships with co-workers suffer. "Co-worker jealousy will put the brakes on a telework program very quickly," Lister says. "Companies have to have very clear rules about who can and can't telecommute" and explain why.
- Make telecommuters part of the office culture.
McCreary, the San Diego home-based computer engineer, works for a company based in New York City whose employees almost all telecommute. When she was telecommuting at a previous employer, an important policy change for how to get projects approved was spread only by word of mouth, leaving her out of the loop. "Then they were, 'We thought you knew that!'" she recalls, still irritated. Regus, the remote office space provider, says it's important to include telecommuters by inviting them to holiday parties and corporate outings.
- It's not for everyone.
Edward Shipley, who works for an industry association based in Washington, telecommutes from home in nearby Springfield, Va., every Thursday.
It's a privilege reserved for managers who apply after completing a probationary period of one year. His boss has ruled out telecommuting on Mondays or Fridays, because, he says, "it looks too much like a three-day weekend." He says he has to agree with her.
Lister says that unfortunately, the debate is "black and white, all-in or all-out" - focused on full-time telecommuters (Yahoo has about 200, out of 12,000 employees) who virtually never set foot in the office. She says telecommuting's "sweet spot" is a split, with roughly as much time spent working at home as at the office.
HERE TO STAY?
The very idea of limits on telecommuting unnerves some. For many younger workers, that flexibility is a given. For Boomers, who may have started their work lives tied to desks as their parents were - rushing to get in before the boss arrived, lingering in the evening until he left - it can be more complicated; working at home feels so good it must be wrong.
The Harris Poll, while generally reflecting approval of telecommuting, suggests such guilt could be well-founded. More than four in five workers say that working together in an office promotes team camaraderie; that some of the best ideas and decisions can come from impromptu, in-person meetings and discussions; that working in an office improves communication and collaboration.
Lister says that argues for part-time telecommuting, not a wholesale retreat to the office as seen on Mad Men. "Telework," she says, "is not a guilty pleasure any more."
Most telecommuters agree there's no going back. At least, they're not.
For McCreary, it's telecommute or bust. "I've been doing the job this way for so long, if I couldn't telecommute, I wouldn't do it at all. I have no interest in ever going to an office again. Dress up every day? Horrible!"
Rick Hampson has been telecommuting several days a week since joining USA TODAY in 1997. His Tibetan Terrier, Marty, seems to appreciate the company.