Proper Planning Keeps Telecommuting From Crashing

Is telecommuting on a collision course with uncompromising business realities, or can working remotely still work to the benefit of employers and employees alike?

Earlier this year, IBM announced it was eliminating telecommuting for segments of its employee populations; Yahoo had done the same for all of its workers four years earlier. These were eye-popping examples of companies that went full throttle with telecommuting, only to slam on the brakes after discovering that business was suffering. 

What companies need to understand is that the key to a successful telecommuting and flextime program is planning, according to Stephanie Penner, a partner with the consulting firm Mercer. 

IBM’s shift on telecommuting doesn’t represent total backtracking, but a move away from broad application of the program, according to Penner. It’s an eye opener for any company; telecommuting might not be the right thing for all employees, and it’s important to recognize when it’s not working, she said. 

Tailor Telecommuting

Flexible work schedules and telecommuting are popular programs that can be very successful at helping employees find work-life balance, but it might not be right for everybody, according to Penner. 

"Technology allows for working virtually across jobs. Figuring out which jobs and which groups can work mostly remotely is another matter. Companies have to think about what they are trying to achieve from these different groups," Penner said. 

Some organizations might find employees who are constantly on the computer, and they can easily telecommute. Other employees might have positions that require more face time with customers, both internally and externally, making it more difficult for them to work remotely, Penner said. 

Companies should examine both the job responsibilities and the connections that each particular job has with activities, and whether those are compatible with working remotely, according to Penner. Managers should schedule regular check-ins with remote employees, keep them updated, and ensure they are on track with work goals, she added. 

Employees Want Options

Penner cited three main reasons that issues such as telecommuting and flexibility have come to the forefront: technology, demographics, and changing expectations. The desire for flexibility and work-life balance is strong among employees—especially millennials—and technology has loosened the shackles that kept workers chained to the office. 

Organizations must look at the entire value proposition for employees if they want to get the most out of people, according to Dan Harris, an analyst with Quantum Workplace, a software company that focuses on employee engagement. "Some companies think of employees as people with needs, others think of employees as robots with benefits," he said. 

Employees who don’t feel as if the organization is meeting their needs—including work-life balance—are more likely to leave, according to a survey from Quantum Workplace. 

"Employees want their voices heard and opinions counted. They want to know that the company supports health, wellbeing, flexibility, and their life outside of work. Employees are looking for that work-life balance," Harris said. 

According to a Pearl Meyer survey on workplace flexibility, roughly half of companies have formal telecommuting policies for some or all employees, and another 20 percent have informal policies. 

Rebecca Toman, manager of survey operations for the executive compensation consulting firm, recommended setting guidelines on telecommuting, rather than approaching the issue in an ad hoc or informal way. Different employees may have different reasons for wanting to work remotely, but they can all benefit from clear guidance under a formal policy that sets expectations regarding hours and other requirements for telecommuters, Toman said.

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