tele· com· mute | \ ˈte-li-kə-ˌmyüt \: to work at home by the use of an electronic linkup with a central office.
The term first came to use during the 90s when the technological possibilities enabled employees to work from home. During the last 10 years, there has been a significant proliferation in numbers of telecommuters. In the States 1.9 million people were working from home in 2005. 3.9 million were working from home in 2017. Although it’s only 2.9% of the total U.S. workforce, it’s still an increase on 115%.
There are loads of compelling arguments, which supports having telecommuters: it’s good for the environment, you can save money for office space, and you can offer your employees increased flexibility.
That said, telecommute has a scattered reputation. It’s a common understanding that when people telecommute, they are “working” from home, probably sitting in bed watching Netflix while tabbing the computer once in a while to keep the instant messenger button green.
Only few studies take upon themselves to dive deep into this conundrum, as companies are (understandably) reluctant to experiment with their employees. A Chinese company, however, engaged in such a study, designing a nine-month long experiment. They gathered two groups of 250 eligible employees for the study, and had one group telecommute four days a week and one group working from the office. Besides the 1.900$ saved per employee on office space, the study demonstrated a 13.5% increase in productivity with those telecommuting compared to the control group which worked at the office. Additionally, those telecommuting had shorter breaks and fewer sick days.
Other studies, however, point to the fact that when half of the office is empty, as people are working from home, this demotivates those ‘who are left behind’. Big companies such as IBM and the American Honeywell partly or fully discarded their telecommute-strategy based on these experiences. Even small entrepreneurial companies report back that they’ve had bad experiences with telecommuting, as the employees treated the days working from home as day’s partly off, or decided to work from another location than their home (which the manager considered a breach of trust). Some studies also show how those who were telecommuting are rated lower in employee evaluations or performance ratings, which was tracked back to the lack of physical presence at the office.
So what to do?
Should we just discard the opportunities provided by new technology, based on bad faith in other people or a few bad experiences?
We say no. Embrace telecommuting.
We are all different people, and not everyone is fit to perform our best in an open office 37 hours or more a week. Facts speak for themselves and who do not want their employees to be more effective and have fewer sick days? That said, there are things which have to be considered, planned and framed. New routines and practices do not arise on their own, but have to be implemented, hand-held and nursed until they’ve become a natural part of your culture.
You can consider the following when planning your telecommute strategy:
Have clearly stated and communicated guidelines as to what your expectations are (is it okay to work from Paris, the Hamptons or Bali? Are there specific hours you should be available in? etc.)
At the office, arrange your employees’ desks so they won't be sitting in half empty offices when they are not working from home
Make sure the facilities for telecommuters are in place (good headset and fast enough Wi-Fi connection)
Have fixed face-to-face gatherings at the office
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Make sure you have good virtual platforms, where people can connect both synchronously and asynchronously
Make your successes visible through your virtual platforms, both company successes, team successes and personal successes - it boots engagement!
Most importantly, have faith in your employees! If you do not trust them with this, why even have them on board.