Time to Back Away From Telecommuting? Nope

Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer announced the end of telecommuting at Yahoo. While some decry this as a step backward, the other side of the story is that there was widespread abuse of telecommuting and a lack of accountability. The move might be a de facto layoff, too, if some people would quit rather than work on premises.

But is Yahoo’s action a warning that telecommuting isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be? Nope.

The problem I have with all the arguing over whether telecommuting is worthwhile, or whether Yahoo made the right decision, is this: Your Mileage May Vary.

People keep talking like telecommuting is one thing that works one way, and that it has a consistent, specific set of benefits and disadvantages, for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Are you more productive in the office or at home? Not everyone has the same answer, and often it’ll depend on the task. Your workplace has resources and distractions. Your home has resources and distractions. There’s no universal answer to say one is always better than the other, for every person, for every task. A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“The hard truth about telecommuting“) says telecommuting “seems to boost productivity, decrease absenteeism, and increase retention.” That’s good news, but it’s a trend, not a universal truth. The BLS report also notes that telecommuters tend to work longer hours, and that telecommuting often falls short on offering a better work-life balance. Here too, a trend is a trend, not a universal rule. Your mileage may vary.

Does a company save money on office space when people are telecommuting? Only if the company removes or reassigns your office space when you switch to telecommuting, and only if the cost savings are greater than any cost increases associated with extensive telecommuting. Does Yahoo have plenty of empty office space and unused office resources sitting around, ready for the returning workers? If so, Yahoo has been wasting money maintaining an environment people weren’t using: heating and cooling, electricity, cleaning services, network connectivity, office supplies, and so on. If not, Yahoo is facing a sizable cost of getting the workplace ready for a big influx of workers. Your mileage may vary.

Ms. Meyer mentioned one area that really does differ between telecommuters and office workers: face time, or the lack thereof. There’s a lot of value and opportunity in the ad hoc communications that can occur when you’re with your colleagues. Communications benefit when you see facial expressions and body language. You lose out on all that when you’re working alone, physically isolated from your colleagues. One telecommuter’s lament (“17 Telecommuting Disadvantages“) is mostly about the lack of face time. Some research suggests that a lack of face time can affect your evaluations (“Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters“).

How do you handle the lack of face time for telecommuters? There are several ways to offset it:

  • In-office days: Arrange for periodic in-office days. Maybe one employee splits up each week by working three days in the office, two days at home; the employee gets some face time, and some isolated time. Maybe the employee comes in once a quarter, and you take full advantage of the opportunity with events or activities that would most benefit from having the person on site.
  • Video conferencing: Some meetings or conversations could work better if you can see the remote people on a screen.
  • Educating staff on audio conferencing: Mostly, problems on audio conferences are the result of people not being used to it. Tips and reminders, or just plain frequent usage, can help.
  • Make online conferencing the norm: Skip the meeting table with a speakerphone in the middle. Have everyone use online meeting tools, whether or not telecommuters are involved, so that your location is immaterial.
  • Acceptance: The offsets above can help reduce the problems of losing face time, but they won’t eliminate them. Another “offset,” therefore, is simply to accept that the reduction in face time is a cost of doing business. If the benefits of telecommuting outweigh the hassles, take a breath and accept it. There are potential disadvantages for those who show up on site, too, but we accept those as a normal cost of doing business.

It Depends: On the Person, the Place, and the Thing

The way to look at telecommuting is that it’s not a universal good or a universal evil. Handle it case by case.

It depends on the person. Is this employee reliable and trustworthy? experienced and resourceful? fully onboarded and acculturated? An employee who gets the organization’s culture and who can work unsupervised is a good candidate for telecommuting. An employee who’s still learning the job, or whose reliability is in question, might need more in-person attention.

It depends on the place. Does this employee have a home environment that’s suitable for telecommuting, including the necessary connectivity and equipment, and a reasonably distraction-free work space? I’d want to make sure telecommuters understand what’s expected.

It depends on the thing. Will the employee be performing “black box” tasks, for which all you care about are the outputs? Does the employee consistently have enough of a workload of such tasks?

Culturally, you might have a challenge convincing the staff that telecommuting isn’t for everyone. You might have a challenge if telecommuting appears to favor some groups over others.

In the end, not everyone gets to telecommute, and not every telecommuter is a 100% telecommuter. I’d rather handle abuses case by case instead of letting a few bad citizens ruin things for the good citizens, but if the abuse has become widespread enough among your telecommuters, it might indeed be time to pull the plug – and time to find out how the abuse got so bad before anyone took useful action.

Jim