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Slackers... or saviours

Yahoo edict reignites debate over the effectiveness of remote workers

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A surprising CEO memo has put telecommuting under the workplace microscope again.

Happy home-based employees are aghast at what seems to be a turn-back-the-clock move by Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, who has summoned the company's telecommuters into the office by June.

There's no doubt the occasional work-at-home practice is a fabulous option for workers who can work remotely. But several studies give Mayer the benefit of the doubt, saying full-time remote work may not be the right choice for organizations or employees.

One issue, Kansas City, Mo., economist Chris Kuehl recently told business clients, is management and control.

Organizations with remote workers can do well when the jobs have clear definitions and deadlines, and when managers have the means to monitor productivity. Organizations do less well with a scattered workforce when the jobs call for collaboration or quick reaction.

In the latter case, Kuehl said, it's "far easier" for managers "to have people where they can see them."

The Yahoo letter didn't address hands-on supervision. Rather, it called for more spontaneous interaction -- a quality difficult to nurture with far-flung employees.

Still, Yahoo's back-to-the-office edict was ironic in that it came from an information technology company whose very products helped make remote work as sophisticated and widespread as it's grown to be. Further irony comes from Mayer's well-known status as a new mother. As such, she's part of a workforce sector that has campaigned vigorously for job flexibility to juggle work and family life.

Jordan Cohen, a "knowledge worker productivity expert" at PA Consulting Group, cautions against making the Yahoo order into a trend or a broad indictment of telecommuting. Take it in isolation, he said, as "a signal that the company is suffering."

And it's possible that management has failed to correctly diagnose the problem.

"You can't make policy changes just to address problems that are managerial in nature," Cohen said. "The real questions are: What has to be accomplished? And what is the best way to accomplish it? Maybe telecommuting is part of that solution."

Ben Waber, chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a management services firm, says the in-house moves may be right for Yahoo at this time but not necessarily right for other organizations or workers.

"There's a big difference between telecommuting occasionally and working from home every day of the year," said Waber, a scientist who uses sensor and digital communication data to analyze productivity and other business results.

"Occasional telecommuting allows people to deal with one-time events and promotes a less stressful work environment," he said. "Remote work, however, means that you lack a social connection to your colleagues."

Some studies show that a result of that break in social connection is lower job satisfaction and higher turnover. Other studies show that individual workers may suffer career penalties when managers harbor unconscious bias against employees they don't see every day.

A recent academic study by Kimberly Elsbach of the University of California-Davis and Daniel Cable of the London Business School investigated perceptions of workers' performance by their managers. The study found that workers who are seen at their desks during work hours are more likely to be considered responsible and dependable than telecommuters.

Their conclusion, which should worry full-time remote workers: "Just being seen at work, without any information about what you're actually doing, leads people to think more highly of you."

Unfortunately, Elsbach and Cable found, bosses often fail to realize when they unconsciously think less of telecommuters than of the telecommuters' in-office peers. Thus the long-term career effect for full-time telecommuters could be poorer performance evaluations, lower raises and fewer promotions.

Regus, a company that provides virtual offices, business centers and video communication services, released a survey that showed what users of its services thought was right or wrong about the way remote workers are being handled.

More than four out of five survey respondents said managers need to accept and trust "flexible" workers more. The survey also indicated that younger workers are more likely to demand telecommuting's flexibility and will leave if they don't have that option.

Amanda Augustine, a job search professional at TheLadders.com, agreed staff attraction and retention is an important consideration.

"Assuming an employee's productivity and work output isn't negatively impacted by a virtual office, offering a more flexible work schedule to a portion of the company is a great way to retain talent and improve morale," Augustine said.

Notice the qualification she set for offering telecommuting to a "portion" of the workforce. Most authorities agree that job descriptions and personal qualities must mesh for telecommuting to be appropriate. Most also agree that periodic face-to-face interaction of co-workers as the best way to share ideas and build camaraderie.

Experts also note that command-and-control managers who simply don't trust remote working relationships need to be better trained or be removed from those kinds of supervisory roles.

For employers who continue to doubt the ability to fully supervise remote workers, authorities point to technology that allows close monitoring of the staff from afar. Some employers use computer surveillance software, including screenshots of workers' computer activity and browser-history tracking, to make sure remote workers are doing what they're supposed to be doing.

But what's more important, advised Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, which advocates for flexible workplaces, is that organizations successfully evolve to systems based on autonomy and accountability -- getting the expected job done well and on time -- rather than focusing on exact minutes spent on the job or the location where it's accomplished.

When that's done successfully, telecommuting advocates argue, slackers are separated from producers, without managers cracking a whip.

Advocates see other upsides to remote work. Working from home saves fuel, reduces air pollution and eliminates commute time that could be spent more productively. And productivity continues to be the core issue.

On the same day that the Yahoo letter went viral, a Stanford University study reported that call center employees who worked from home increased their productivity by 13 per cent -- and were more satisfied employees.

A University of Texas-Austin study last year said people who work from home added five to seven hours to their workweek, compared with employees who worked solely in the office.

Also, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report last year said working remotely appears to reduce absenteeism and increase retention.

And one more plus for working at home: When this winter's flu outbreak decimated some workplaces, public health officials said telecommuting helped reduce the spread of disease.

-- Kansas City Star / MCT Information Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J14

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