Why We’re Still Worked Up About Working from Home
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Christina Couch
The Fiscal Times
July 9, 2013

Yahoo banned it. Best Buy and Bank of America modified it. But working from home is not going away any time soon.

For many employees, working from home is a crucial part of their work-life balance and it’s not going away anytime soon. 

For businesses, the option of letting employees work from home is key to recruitment and retention efforts and disaster continuity strategies – even as critics argue that working remotely hinders collaboration and creativity. According to a June 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics study, nearly one in four employees worked at least part of the time from home. And nearly one in ten U.S. workers telecommutes at least one day per week, reports the U.S. Census Bureau.

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“The trend is for employers to offer more telecommuting opportunities,” says Lisa Horn, a senior advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), based in Alexandria, VA. Citing a joint study by SHRM and the Families and Work Institute of more than 1,100 employers, she says, “In 2012, 63 percent of organizations reported allowing at least some of their employees to occasionally work from home. That was up significantly from 2005, where the number was only 34 percent of organizations.”

Despite Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s statement that workers are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together,” employers who are not on the telecommuting bandwagon may face an uphill battle when it comes to recruiting innovative young workers.  Flexible work options topped the list of what millennials look for in a job, with 81 percent of them believing they should be able to work the hours they choose, reports a study by MTV.

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There’s no question that working from home is on the front burner when it comes to flexible work arrangements. But many questions remain as to whether it’s possible to structure telecommuting to maximize employee morale without sacrificing the collaborative and social aspects of physical office space. It is possible, says Kate Lister, president of the telework consultancy firm Global Workplace Analytics – but only if we stop thinking of telecommuting arrangements as all-or-nothing propositions that are either good or bad for every organization.

“It’s not black and white,” says Lister, who has read more than 4,500 studies on the subject. “The best implementations tend to be a mix that home, or third places are where you go to do your concentrative work, and offices are where you go to do your collaborative work. Industry leaders are completely redesigning their offices to address this.”

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Diane Coles Levine is one of those leaders. The director of workplace solutions for SCAN Health Plan, a company that provides Medicare services to seniors and allows one in four employees to work from home part-time, Levine says that her company’s telecommuting initiatives save $1 million a year in real estate costs. She says the programs have also increased worker productivity, since managers get to custom-tailor the arrangements for their individual teams.

SCAN also identifies the home and office as separate work environments that serve different functions and takes steps to maximize productivity in both. Cubicles in the Long Beach, California-based office have been replaced with modular furniture and open office space to optimize collaboration. Employees who telecommute must analyze their productivity for three to six months before working from home and create personal metrics for gauging accomplishments when working remotely. They’re also required, along with their managers, to undergo training on everything from time management strategies to how long they should wait before coming into the office if they have technical difficulties at home.

“The training is really the key,” says Levine.

THE PROBLEM WITH ‘ALWAYS ON’
Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies labor issues, says that it’s also important to recognize that telecommuting has a down side. A study co-authored by Glass and published in the Monthly Labor Review reveals that technology has changed expectations for both workers and employers. Some put in a regular work week at the office, followed by an average of five-to-seven hours of weekly at-home overtime, which is frequently uncompensated.

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“[That] allows employers to pile on extra work and gives workers a safety valve so that they don’t have to stay at the office to get it all done,” Glass says. “It’s creating expectations of 24/7 availability – that you’ll check e-mail at night and on weekends... But it’s not actually facilitating the kind of work-family balance that telecommuting was originally [hoping] to do.”

Even for employees who work regular office hours remotely, it’s easy to blur the line between work and personal life. It’s also easy to get distracted, overlooked or passed over for a promotion if both employees and managers don’t have clear work-from-home objectives.

“Those companies that aren’t successful [with telecommuting initiatives] are probably not doing it right,” says Kate Lister. “It’s not a matter of the strategy; it’s a matter of the implementation of the strategy.”

Not every company, however, will agree – and that includes Yahoo. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” said the original company memo that was sent to employees by its human resources department. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”