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The noncommute: Pros and cons of working from home

Aug. 16, 2013 - 01:30PM   |  
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Americans love telecommuting. We know it’s supposed to save on corporate overhead and boost productivity. We don’t really care. Not as long as there are leaves to rake, pajamas to wear at noon, decks on which to work at sunset.

It permits Monica Clarke to be a military spouse and still have a social media marketing career. “I did the cubicle monkey thing, twiddling my thumbs until it was 5 o’clock, and I hate to tell my old bosses this, but I never worked harder than I do now,” says Clarke, 30, who expects to keep working remotely when her soldier husband is transferred this year from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Colorado Springs, Colo.

A big reason employers like telecommuting is that employees do, which makes it easier to keep those workers and attract new ones. Ravi Shankar Gajendran, a University of Illinois business professor who’s spent years studying telecommuting, notes that a decade ago, only one in 10 places listed on Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work for” offered or allowed telecommuting. Today, 80 percent do.

How to make it work

But for telecommuting to succeed, employer and employee have to agree on terms.

Make it about the work, not where the work is done. “You must have deliverables — things that everyone agrees you’ve got to get done,” says Greg Gibbons, 51, who works for TEKsystems, a provider of IT help desk support services. Although the company is based in Maryland, he got permission to work from home in Wilmington, N.C., three miles from the beach.

Talk more, not less. Kate Lister of the Telework Research Network, who advises businesses on workplace issues, says managers and remote workers need to communicate more often than if they were sharing an office, using all the tools — email, IM, phone and, if necessary, video.

Build bridges between insiders and outsiders. Gajendran warns that employees who work away from their offices for more than half the week say relationships with co-workers suffer.”Co-worker jealousy will put the brakes on a telework program very quickly,” Lister says. “Companies have to have very clear rules about who can and can’t telecommute” and explain why. Telecommuters need to be part of the office culture.

It’s not for everyone. Edward Shipley, who works for an industry association based in Washington, telecommutes from home in nearby Springfield, Va., every Thursday. It’s a privilege reserved for managers who apply after completing a probationary period of one year. His boss has ruled out telecommuting on Mondays or Fridays, because, he says, “it looks too much like a three-day weekend.” He says he has to agree with her.

Lister says that unfortunately, the debate is “black and white, all-in or all-out” - focused on full-time telecommuters who virtually never set foot in the office. She says telecommuting’s “sweet spot” is a split, with roughly as much time spent working at home as at the office.

Here to stay?

The very idea of limits on telecommuting unnerves some. For many younger workers, that flexibility is a given. For baby boomers, who may have started their work lives tied to desks, working at home feels so good it must be wrong. The Harris Poll, while generally reflecting approval of telecommuting, suggests such guilt could be well-founded. More than four in five workers say that working in an office promotes team camaraderie; that some of the best ideas come from in-person discussions; and that working in an office improves collaboration.

Lister argues for part-time telecommuting, not a wholesale retreat to the office. “Telework,” she says, “is not a guilty pleasure anymore.”

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