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Special Focus: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Telecommuting

Feb. 28, 2013
Does telecommuting boost employee morale and productivity, or does it compromise work quality and communication?
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made some waves this week when a leaked memo outlined the company’s plans to rein in working-from-home arrangements. This policy sparked conversations surrounding the benefits and pitfalls of telecommuting.

The Yahoo memo stated, in part, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

But not everyone agrees that being physically present in the workplace is best for productivity and employee morale, and many are questioning Yahoo’s decision.

“Broad policy changes such as ‘no more telecommuting’ don't work; this is role- and work-specific. You can't make policy changes just to address problems that are managerial in nature,” said Jordan Cohen, knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group. “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.”

Benefits and Challenges

EHS Today and sister publication IndustryWeek have covered some of the benefits and challenges associated with telecommuting. In “Does Yahoo's Marissa Mayer Have It Right?IndustryWeek shares insight from Ben Waber, Ph.D., who points out that there’s “a big difference” between telecommuting year-round and those who occasionally work from home. Occasional telecommuting, he says, “allows people to deal with one-time events and promotes a less stressful work environment. Remote work, however, means that you lack a social connection to your colleagues. In general, this relates to lower job satisfaction for the entire company, higher turnover, and lower productivity.”

IndustryWeek also counted telecommuting and flexible workplaces as one of the 12 key strategies to achieving a work-life balance, suggesting with work-from-home options are “forward thinking.” And another IndustryWeek article suggests that creating flexible work arrangements, which can include telecommuting, can even prevent workplace suicide.

EHS Today Editor-in-Chief Sandy Smith, meanwhile, extols the virtues of occasionally working from home in her editorial “Flexibility is Good.” She writes:

“While I’m a good multi-tasker, my brain was feeling fried and I decided that a day away from my ringing office phone, continual email updates and office chat would do me some good. And I was right: By 2 p.m., I had edited a contributed feature, finished my feature and put the EHS News department together. I also managed to wash and dry two loads of clothes, take the dogs for a walk, wash a sink full of dishes, make myself a decent lunch and watch a half hour more of CNN than I usually watch in the morning.”

Smith isn't alone in her experiences. A range of studies have demonstrated the potential health and work-life balances associated with at least occasional telecommuting.

Health and Balance

Recent EHS Today coverage also suggests that flexible work arrangements can enhance job control and employee well-being;improve employee health and lead to healthier lifestyle habits; lead to increased work satisfaction; and create improved work-life balance that may, in turn, reduce injury risks.

But for busy employees, there can be a downside to telecommuting: additional stress and blurred lines between work and home. Despite all the literature suggesting that telecommuting can improve work-life balance, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin actually found that working from home can negatively impact this balance. Telecommuters, they found, may be more likely to work overtime and allow their professional lives to blend in with their personal lives. Additionally, telecommuters who face constant work-related communications may become stressed and feel less engaged with their organizations.        

Finally, EHS Today outlined employers’ most common telecommuting mistakes and also discussed safety challenges among the remote work force.

Telecommuting is a complex issue with challenges and opportunities specific to each organization and employee – which may be why Mayer has endured backlash against Yahoo’s new policy.

“Executives shouldn't make policies that change a company's work style/culture in this manner, because the executives are so far away from the work, or it's been such a long time since they actually performed the work,” Cohen concluded. “This is a trap many executives fall into, thinking a policy can fix the problem, but they can't solve it with a broad sweeping solution from on high.”

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