IBM recently implemented a dramatic change, announcing that they are ending telecommuting at their company, which not only impacts the hundreds of thousands of employees who work there, but could have an impact on companies around the United States and the world. Overall, in the United States, about 25% of all employees work remotely all or at least most of the time.
IBM is not the first large company to make such an announcement. Yahoo surprised the world in 2013 with this same announcement. Best Buy and Reddit made similar changes in the last several years. The primary reason for ending telecommuting is the idea that working together in a physical location is the key to innovation.
Experts point out that there is tremendous value in the “water cooler effect”- having employees sitting around talking to each other about new, innovative ideas that could help benefit the company. Employees have been found to communicate and collaborate much more effectively when they are working in close proximity to one another.
But before any telecommuters reading this article runs out of their house to buy conservative work clothes to prepare for the inevitable return to the workplace, rest assured… there is tremendous evidence out there that continues to support the benefits of the employee who works from home. Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, authored a study measuring the productivity of employees who work from home. The results indisputably showed that remote workers put in more hours and took less time off.
However, the argument that employees with creative jobs should be in the office to brainstorm and collaborate with fellow employees is compelling. It is very hard to find a solid substitute for face to face interaction, which very often leads to new, original ideas. But what about the employee who is engaged in the operational side of business? If an employee is doing data entry, for example, is it necessary to sit around the water cooler and discuss new ideas of typing in numbers? The argument for working together in the same physical location is therefore not quite as strong.
There are tremendous benefits to both the employer and employee when an employee is given the opportunity to work from home or have some other flexible work arrangement. In many situations, such an arrangement can be a win-win for the employer and the employee. Employees that are able to deal with pressures at home are likely to be more productive when they are on the job. There are fewer distractions at home (albeit there are different distractions), such as chatty co-workers and other office interruptions. At-home employees tend to log more hours than employees that work in the office, in that they take shorter breaks, work until the end of the day, and are liberated from the daily time-consuming back and forth commute. Moreover, sick days for employees who work from home are significantly less.
If an employer’s goal is to engender loyalty to help reduce employee turnover, then flexible work schedules can be very useful to help move the employer towards that goal. It has been shown time and time again that employees who are given this flexibility are happier and less likely to quit. Additionally, employers can oftentimes find highly qualified employees who work in a location where there is no physical office. Employers not only save money by not having to go through a costly hiring process, but they save money on office space and furniture.
There are some important issues to consider if you are an employer that either presently allows telecommuters or is considering allowing for employees to begin working from home. First, employers must be aware that by allowing employees to work from home, there is less control over the employee, thus opening up the employer to potential risk. If there is not some system put into place that measures the productivity of the employee, then it is very hard to track whether the employee is properly performing. Having regular communication and both formal and informal evaluations can be helpful to make sure that the employee is staying on track. Moreover, an employer should be aware that if the company has confidential information and trade secrets, the employer has less control over this when an employee has access to this information from home.
For these reasons, it is highly advisable for an employer to protect itself with telecommuting employees by requiring every employee working from home to sign a telecommuting policy. A telecommuting policy, therefore, minimizes risk by setting out expectations for the employee and explains the employer’s responsibilities. A properly drafted telecommuting policy can help define eligibility to telecommute, provide a specific procedure for requesting approval to telecommute, explain employee’s responsibilities, and remind employees that they are expected to comply with all employer policies. This document can be incorporated into an employee handbook or used as a stand-alone policy document if and when it applies to a specific employee. Always remember that if you, as an employer, have never authorized telecommuting in the past, you could always put into the document that it will be for a trial period, and then at the end of that time period, there can be a reassessment to determine whether such an arrangement is working.