The Telecommuting Tempest 

Recent moves by Yahoo and Best Buy to end or limit telecommuting has drawn both criticism and praise, but even some telework proponents admit there are serious drawbacks to the practice.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013
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Rachel Lehman can go for months at a time without seeing her coworkers in person. It's quite all right with her: Whenever a concern arises or an issue needs to be resolved, a quick call via Skype or an email usually suffices.

Collaboration is vital in Lehman's line of work -- her employer, FiveCurrents, produced the elaborate opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Next year, her team will be in Sochi, Russia, overseeing the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics. However, when the company's staff isn't on the ground planning and coordinating these large-scale events, all of them -- like Lehman -- telecommute from home offices scattered around the country.

"Our view is that you think collectively, but you execute independently, and if you execute independently, it doesn't matter whether you do it in person, or by phone or," says Lehman, who oversees human resources, financials and project management for the 15-person firm, which balloons to as many as 800 contract workers during its on-site events.

Lehman, like many others who telecommute, is deeply unimpressed by the recent moves at Yahoo and Best Buy to end or sharply reduce their work-from-home policies.

"Why create the challenge of transporting people away from their homes when, in some cases, the best people aren't interested in that and they could just as effectively work remotely?" she says.

Others take a more sympathetic view of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's and Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly's decisions. James Surowiecki, a business columnist at the New Yorker, wrote in a recent piece on Mayer's decision that most of the studies on telecommuting focus on how it affects employees. Less attention has been paid to how it affects employers, he wrote, adding that, for Yahoo, the costs of telecommuting -- the allegedly negative impact it had on team cohesion and productivity -- appear to have far outweighed its benefits.

"On the simplest level, telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the kinds of informal interaction that are crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organization," Surowiecki wrote. "The role that hallway chat plays in driving new ideas has become a cliché of business writing, but that doesn't make it less true."

Even telecommuting's advocates agree that the arrangement can have its drawbacks.

Aon Hewitt's Carol Sladek telecommutes every day. She's experienced firsthand how working from home can sometimes lead to a nonexistent boundary between work and life.

"It's all too easy to wander back into your home office after dinner intending to spend only 10 minutes checking something and, before you know it, two hours have gone by," says Sladek, the Lincolnshire, Ill.-based firm's work/life consulting leader. "It can be dangerous for the employee."

Telecommuting can also be disadvantageous to the employer when the wrong people are allowed to do it, says Sladek.

"HR is focused on trying to be equitable and equal, but telecommuting is something where you have to distinguish between people," she says, adding that it should be reserved for employees who are experienced in their jobs, self-starters and above-average performers.

"The below-average rarely get better if you send them off on their own," says Sladek. "And you've got to be a goal-oriented self-starter. If you're more clock-oriented in terms of the work you do, this arrangement is probably not for you."

Although Mark Girr's company provides software that's designed to let employees who work remotely collaborate and share information effortlessly with office-based colleagues, he believes that, at times, there's no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

"Every office has a different vibe to it; every manager has his or her own idiosyncrasies," says Girr, principal at iKNO Intranet, a Portland, Maine-based provider of online collaboration tools. Companies do a disservice to their telecommuting employees when they don't require them to spend at least some of their time at the office so they can get a sense of how the organization really works, he says.

To Mac McConnell, however, the debate over telecommuting seems misguided.

"Companies have been successfully managing smaller offices around the country and around the world for quite some time," says McConnell, vice president of marketing at San Francisco-based software firm BonitaSoft. "So I'm surprised to hear these companies say they've been managing these worldwide offices perfectly, but when employees work from home, they're just not able to manage them properly?"

McConnell, who earlier in his career telecommuted while working for Sun Microsystems, says the concerns over telecommuting -- specifically, that it may undermine teamwork and collaboration -- underscore a lack of project-management expertise in many organizations today. What's needed, he says, is for organizations to have a process in place that managers can refer to for tracking the specific tasks and milestones of their projects.

"People often think of a project as a 'one-off,' but the process for developing that campaign should be repeatable," he says. Business-process management suites can help managers keep an eye on the status of various projects and ensure goals and deadlines are being met.

As for the impromptu face-to-face collaboration that a physical office supposedly promotes, says McConnell, tools such as instant messaging, Chatter, LinkedIn and Facebook can easily replicate those serendipitous hallway meetings.

"Some of the best brainstorming sessions I've had are through IM, just banging ideas back and forth, and a side benefit of that is I have a log of that conversation; I can return to it anytime I want," he says. "Whereas, when we run into each other in the office, we mostly just end up talking about sports."

Kathie Lingle considers herself squarely in the pro-telecommuting camp. Managers who are opposed to the arrangement, she says, often have fears about relinquishing control.

"It's unproductive to have total control over employees -- the data overwhelmingly show that giving workers autonomy is a good thing to do," says Lingle, executive director of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress.

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Earlier in her career, Lingle spent time at KPMG helping the giant accounting firm become one of the pioneers in the work/life movement.

"It was taking what had been this old boys' club and yanking it first into the twentieth, and then the twenty-first, century," she says.

The initiative Lingle oversaw included a telecommuting pilot program. The very concept was anathema to many managers at KPMG, she recalls.

"We all have a psychological 'true north' about flexibility," she says. "Some people are incredibly flexible and some are incredibly rigid, and when you tell the latter to give up some control over their employees, their kneejerk reaction is going to be 'Not on my watch!' "

At KPMG, she says, the key to winning acceptance was forging ahead without letting the "resistors and detractors" drive the conversation.

"They make most of the noise and take up all the oxygen in the room," says Lingle.

Instead, Lingle and her team found "champions" of flexible work at different KPMG offices who were willing to give their employees more autonomy. When those teams were successful, Lingle made sure that other parts of the organization knew about it. Eventually, other employees wanted to be on those teams.

"You can't do these great dictums, these 'Thou shalt do this or that' -- it's hard work, and it's slow," she says.

Telework can be a hard sell in many organizations today because managers aren't given the training to be effective in managing remote employees, says Lingle. "The amount of money and effort put into training managers these days has dwindled to almost nothing."

Remote work "is like a power tool in the work/life toolkit," she says. "If it's overseen by someone with no training, it can do more harm than good."

Having a formal telecommuting policy -- as Aon Hewitt does -- can help a great deal, says Sladek. Providing managers and employees with guidelines, and measuring the effectiveness of the arrangement, is much better than just taking an ad hoc approach, she says.

"Managing a person from a distance can be very uncomfortable for many managers," says Sladek. "HR has to provide the tools and training for that manager so they become more comfortable managing for results instead of face time."

FiveCurrents' Lehman suggests "forcing the communication" -- hold regular staff teleconferences to ensure telecommuters know what their colleagues are working on and give people the opportunity to reach out for help if they need it.

"In our case, these meetings are about providing collaboration opportunities for our colleagues, not status updates," she says. "It's an opportunity to say 'How can I help?' because, at the end of the day, my objectives are aligned with my teammates' -- if they don't win, we don't win."

The debate over telecommuting that's been spurred by Yahoo and Best Buy is a healthy development, says Sladek.

"The one really good thing that's come out of this media frenzy is that employers are stepping back and asking whether telecommuting makes sense for them, to ask serious questions about whether it's effective," she says.

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