Telecommuting: Diminishing Due to Job Cuts?

by Michael Haberman on March 24, 2009 · 4 comments


I heard a report on the radio the other day that many people who work from home as telecommuters are giving up the opportunity to do so in order to protect their jobs. The people interviewed thought that without the office “visability” they would be considered expendable. One quote was that “Having the jacket on the back of the chair 14 hours a day was the best way to show that you were irreplaceable.” A article from over a year ago, in the Wall Street Journal reported similar feelings. In Some Companies Rethink The Telecommuting Trend writer Sue Shellenbarger reports that many companies, considered leaders in the use of telecommuters, are calling those telecommuters back to the office. In many cases cutting telecommuting to one day per week. And this was before the recession hit.

In both cases, the employee’s and the employer’s, I think cutting back on telecommuting is a mistake. Study after study has found that telecommuters are more productive than if they had stayed in the office. Here is a good report, put together by a student at Kennesaw State University, that covers the upsides and downsides of telecommuting. Telecommuting: Does It Work? Many workers are concerned about visability. Well your best visability is your effective and productive work. Shellenbarger, from the WSJ article referenced above, offers these tips:
  • Perform well. In explaining the callbacks at Hewlett-Packard, Chief Information Officer Randy Mott said last year that telecommuting “had gotten applied more broadly than really made sense,” and would be limited to “people who are proficient and who’ve shown they can perform over time.” Make sure measurable objectives are set for your job, then meet them.
  • Increase your visibility. One behavior sure to irk managers is to use work-at-home freedom to move to a location so remote, such as Hawaii, that travel costs soar. Although Intel disputes the assertion, people familiar with the callbacks there cite such abuses as a factor. Wherever you’re located, find ways to remain visible.
  • Make an effort to collaborate. Elliott Masie, head of the Masie Center, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., research organization, says many younger managers are comfortable collaborating online. But as pressures mount, older managers may revert to the notion that to build teamwork, “it’s important for everybody to sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya’ together,” he says. It may be wise to join that chorus.

There have been studies that there are some problems with telecommuting. The suprising issue is not with the telecommuters, rather it is with those left in the office. New study says telecommuting can hurt office morale writer Richard A. D’Errico reports that a study “…found that the greater the number of telecommuters at an organization, the less satisfied the office workers were with their jobs.”

So the HR challenge is making sure that the entire process gets managed appropriately. The study suggests that “…managers work to ensure that there’s more face-to-face contact among telecommuters and office workers, and provide office workers with more autonomy to do their jobs. “

What have been your experiences?

  • Do you fear for your telecommuting job?
  • Have you seen cutbacks in the numbers of telecommuters?
  • Do non-telecommuters have morale problems in your workplace?
  • What have you done to make yourself more “valuable”?
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Telesaur March 24, 2009 at 2:17 pm

A perfect telework scenario is one where employers trust employees to get things done, and employees trusts employers to value their work results. Layoffs lower productivity in and out of the office, and the fear they create certainly cloud the assessment of telework.

If physical presence could eliminate the onslaught of layoffs, I would push my friends and family back to the cubicles, but it just hasn’t improved the bottom line. Layoffs will continue until employers realize that doing less of the wrong thing doesn’t improve anything. On the other hand, telework can cut costs while keeping the staff you have.

Knowledge workers rarely see each other in offices anyway… I loved the quote you shared about “having the jacket on the back of the chair” because I bet that’s all teleworkers would have to do to create the illusion of physical presence.

One friend of mine, who teleworks, built into her hiring agreement that she would have the same training and career development opportunities as she would have working in an office (ie. conferences, seminars, courses). She also makes a conscious effort to document her productivity and report it daily.

I certainly agree with you, Michael, that pulling teleworkers back into the office is a mistake. But layoffs are legitimate fears. Telework employers will need to take steps to ensure their teleworkers that physical presence isn’t what isn’t the office currency— outcome is.

Great article, thanks! Find me talking about telework on Twitter: @telesaur

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Maggie March 24, 2009 at 2:53 pm

I was glad to find this post after reading a front-page article in the Washington Post yesterday about this same thing–the perception that businesses were taking away telecommuting privileges because they felt that they no longer had to offer it as incentive to stay–people are just glad they have a job. I was really disappointed to read it, because the idea of companies thinking this is a time to capitalize on employees’ fear of losing their jobs is ridiculous. Sure, today the job market may be horrible in some areas (but certainly not all) but what happens a year or two from now when this recession becomes a distant blip on the radar and companies need good people to help get their businesses back on track? Then who will be laughing and calling the shots? The employees.

Call me overly-optimistic, but I honestly feel that grasping at any excuse just to take something like work/life balance and knock it back a good 20 years is the wrong way to conduct business. Now is the exact time that companies should be focusing on results–not bodies in chairs at the office. Selecting the strongest workforce should be about maximizing the staff you do choose to retain, not about finally getting back at the people who fought for flexible work arrangements.

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Michael D. Haberman, SPHR March 24, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Telesaur, great comment about knowledge workers rarely seeing each other in the office anyway. That is true even in small companies where everyone maybe in the same building. It is especially true in larger organizations.

Maggie, I agree with you. I hope companies have realized the value of telework beyond just a recruiting tool.

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Anonymous March 26, 2009 at 8:24 am

Hi Michael–Great Post on telecommuting. I agree with Telesaur and Maggie that this is SUCH a short-sited view by companies. I work on an extremely successful and productive 5-person telecommuting team with members located throughout the country. We ARE required to live near one of our divisions, but we remain ‘visible’ throughout the day as we are tightly connected using Instant Messaging. I think one of the keys to our success is that we are ‘available’ and ‘respond rapidly’ to any IM, e-mail, phone calls that we receive. This can be overwhelming at times, but so worth it on the days when the sun is shining and I’m working with my laptop on my screened-in porch and the birds are singing.

Maggie makes a good point. I do wonder what steps some companies might be taking out there just taking advantage of their employees’ fears. Something for HR to be thinking about and helping to make sure it’s not happening within their organizations. Perhaps a thought for another blog?

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