Building the Case for 'Hybrid' Telework

New research suggests that teleworkers can be either as productive as or even more productive than other workers, even in those instances when they're working remotely just one to three days a week.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013
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Despite Yahoo!'s decision nearly a year ago to eliminate telework as an option, the benefits of telework continue to be much-heralded in the press. But does telework actually result in more productive workers?

And can employers expect a similar outcome when employees telework just one to three days a week?

In a recent study by the University of Melbourne's Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society and Auckland University of Technology's NZ Work Research Institute, researchers found that the answer to both questions is an unequivocal "yes."  Whether employees teleworked full-time or just one to three days a week, the managers questioned reported a higher degree of productivity than those who didn't telework.

The study, titled The Trans-Tasman Telework Survey, examined the perspectives and experiences of supervisors and employees, surveying 100 HR and team managers and more than 1,800 staff across 50 Australian and New Zealand organizations. On the employee side, most of the respondents were either low-intensity teleworkers (up to one day per week) or hybrid teleworkers (one to three days a week).

Like earlier studies, the Australian and New Zealand researchers found strong evidence of the positive benefits of remote work arrangements for both the workers and their organizations, with teleworkers rating their work environment more highly than non-teleworkers and managers expressing higher levels of satisfaction with their teleworkers' productivity.

Nearly half of teleworkers (47 percent) said their employer or manager is aware that they telework, but added that there is no formal telework policy or agreement in place at their organizations. Trans-Tasman Telework Survey follows a Harris Interactive poll of 2,219 adults released in March that reveals nearly two-thirds of American workers (64 percent) believe that working from home increases productivity and work output.

Roughly four in five (83 percent) of the workers in the Harris study said they viewed the option as a significant job perk, with three in five saying that the option to telecommute has had, or would have, an impact on their decision to take or stay at a job.

In a February study involving 503 call-center employees at CTrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency, researchers found a 13 percent increase in performance from home-working, of which 9 percent was from working more minutes of their shift period (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4 percent from higher performance per minute.

That study, titled Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment, revealed substantially higher work satisfaction and psychological attitude scores for home workers. Job attrition rates, meanwhile, fell by more than 50 percent.

Rachelle Bosua, a professor at the University of Melbourne and one of the authors of "The Trans-Tasman Telework Survey," believes giving knowledge workers the ability to control their own work creates a more happy workforce that, in turn, is more productivity.

"Our study confirms that flexible work is a way for managers to invest in the wellbeing of their workers, increasing productivity [and] job satisfaction, and retaining talented workers," she says.

In light of these findings, Bosua adds, employers should view work as an activity that is valued based on what is being delivered in terms of time and quality, and not where it is performed.

The research, she says, confirms that this higher degree of productivity exists even among hybrid workers. (The researchers didn't compare the productivity of levels of hybrid teleworkers against full-time telecommuters.)

The findings reflect what Jack Heacock has been seeing as senior vice president and co-founder of Telcoa, a telework education and advocacy organization based in Washington.

"Consistently over the last decade and a half," Heacock says, "we have witnessed a 22-percent average increase in productivity by the full-time [telework] employee," including greater longevity with associated reduction in new hire training costs, greater job satisfaction ... and fewer 'sick days' taken."

Heacock points out that hybrid workers "enjoy a substantial share" of these benefits.

According to the 2013 Survey on Workplace Flexibility by WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nonprofit HR association, roughly 53 percent of 834 HR respondents said their organizations permit employees to telework at least one day per week, down slightly from a year earlier. The study revealed that telework on an ad-hoc basis continued to be most common approach, with 83 percent offering such flexibility to its workforce.

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 At the same time, roughly 36 percent of these survey respondents indicated that teleworking employees were as productive as in-office employees, with 53 percent admitting that it is difficult to estimate the productivity of employees who telework.

Whether it's a hybrid or full-time approach, many employers continue to struggle to manage telework effectively, notes Rose Stanley, practice leader at WorkatWork.

One of the biggest issues continues to be managers who question whether employees are actually working, says Stanley. "My question back to them is how do you know if they're really working while they're in the office, since you're not standing over them there?" she says. "You obviously have something in your mind that you're looking for when they're in the office, so you need to look for that same thing when they're not."

To ensure telework initiatives don't backfire, Stanley says, employers and HR leaders need to encourage managers to set up "regular check-ins" with remote employees. As a manager, she says, meeting with a teleworker a couple of times a year simply won't do the trick. He or she "needs to meet with them every month, or even every other week."

Experts agree that training both employees and managers is key.

In the WorldatWork survey, flexibility training for both managers and employees is rare, with only 18 percent of employers reporting they train employees on how to be successful with flexible-work arrangements and 17 percent saying they train managers on how to manage employees who are working from home.

"It's critical that managers understand why their organizations have decided to allow telework," Stanley explains. 

In The Trans-Tasman Telework Survey, fewer than 50 percent of the managers said they received telework-related training across areas such as management of teleworkers, providing a safe and healthy work environment that's aligned with [government safety laws] and the effective use of technology to stay connected with colleagues.

Most of the managers surveyed said they would like more training to help them better manage remote employees and help them set up their home office.

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