How telecommuting increases productivity, improves job satisfaction and enhances
Adam Smith | December 2011 Issue
Like many new mothers, Pamela Ferrill prefers not to be far from her baby. And like many parents, she has to balance that instinct with her responsibilities. Happily for Ferrill, 40, she’s found a clever fix: She works from her suburban San Francisco home three days a week, avoiding the two-hour round-trip commute to the San Jose office of information technology (IT) networking firm Cisco, where she’s a public relations manager.
“I don’t feel the strain of feeling I’m wasting an hour of my time,” Ferrill says. She feels “much more productive,” she says, and while she’s available when issues arise, she finds she can go back to her life and is much happier that way. Many of Ferrill’s colleagues feel the same. Cisco’s 71,000 employees worldwide spend an average of two days a week telecommuting—using technology to do from home the work traditionally performed in an office. And like Ferrill, most have benefited: Four-fifths of those polled by Cisco say their quality of life has improved thanks to the flexible working approach, according to a report published by the company. Staffers say they spend 40 percent of hours reclaimed from commuting as personal time. An additional benefit is that CO2 emissions are reduced. But this did not come at the expense of employers. Telecommuting staff helped Cisco top $277 million in annual productivity savings, claim company execs.
Of course, you would expect a firm responsible for engineering technology that makes telecommuting possible to be enthusiastic. But Cisco’s experience mirrors similar studies worldwide. Those who frequently work from home are generally happier and more productive, personally as well as professionally. Telecommuting offers workers and employers an array of potential benefits, including everything from reducing stress and staff turnover to improving performance and work-life balance. “When employees have more autonomy—can make more choices about when and where they work—they report greater job satisfaction as well as satisfaction in their personal lives,” says E. Jeffrey Hill, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Burgeoning broadband networks, video-conferencing and iPads have encouraged the growth in telecommuting. Roughly 27 million Europeans now work from home at least part of the week, according to European Union figures, while Forrester Research estimates that some 34 million Americans do the same. The technology is meeting a real human need. According to a recent survey by Cisco, three-fifths of workers in 13 countries said they would take a lower-paid position that promised flexible working conditions over a better-paid one without them. Some 37 percent of U.S. IT workers polled in 2008 by the online technology job site Dice said they would trade 10 percent of their salaries for the chance to telecommute. And these results come after the most severe economic crisis in generations.
Not everyone can telecommute, however, even if they want to. Receptionists and brain surgeons can’t operate from home, for example. And not everyone is temperamentally suited to telecommuting; some people thrive best among colleagues. Then there are the “segmenters,” as Ravi Gajendran, professor of business administration at the University of Illinois, calls them: people who “want home and office as separate spheres.” Plus, working as part of a group is often essential to professional growth, especially early in a person’s career. A graphic designer fresh from college “might be a whiz at Photoshop,” says Ursula Huws, professor of international labor studies at London Metropolitan University, but he or she still needs “to network, to learn by watching other people, learn organizational culture [and] learn how another graphic designer talks to a client.”
For those inclined toward telecommuting, the potential benefits are significant. A 2007 study, carried out by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, distilled two decades of research into a handful of key findings: Working from home increases a sense of autonomy, reduces work-life conflicts and generally improves relationships with managers. Freed from the face-to-face supervision typical of office life, employees appear buoyed by the discretion that comes with choosing when and where they perform certain work. That, in turn, is pivotal in boosting employees’ job satisfaction, improving how their bosses rate them and lowering their stress levels.
The feeling of empowerment, given minimal distractions at home and the time not spent commuting, impacts productivity. By cutting the number of interruptions at home, “you’re more productive,” says Jon Messenger, senior research officer at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. “There’s no doubt.”
The Penn State study suggested that supervisors generally give better performance ratings to telecommuting staff. In addition, the implicit message of trust that comes from allowing employees to work unsupervised may also boost the psychological commitment of staff to the firm. In 2003, after retailer Best Buy introduced its Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) program—a scheme granting many staff members the flexibility to choose when and where to work provided they hit predetermined targets—there was a 90 percent drop in voluntary employee turnover that netted the firm $16 million in annual savings.
Still, the lure of working from home comes less from feeling better about work than it does from feeling better about seeing more of your family. But striking a balance between the two, even with stints spent at home, isn’t always easy. Previous studies have highlighted the perils associated with family and work occupying the same physical space, often at the same time of day, proximity that can sometimes increase the likelihood of one infringing upon the other. Deprived of a commute, moreover, some may find it harder to disentangle themselves psychologically from work.
The Penn State study, though, suggests telecommuting makes it easier to regulate the work-life balance. By precisely scheduling work to reduce the kind of disturbances that might otherwise arise, conflicts between home and office can be limited. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Family Psychology, academics from Brigham Young University identified the points at which thousands of IBM employees worldwide reported conflicts between their professional and personal lives. For office-based staff on a fixed schedule, problems arose after about 38 hours of work. Those on flexible schedules with the option to telecommute, however, clocked 57 hours before any problems flared.
For anyone considering working at home, though, the findings come with a crucial caveat—“Telecommuting, if you don’t have flexibility about when you work, doesn’t do much for you,” says Brigham Young’s Hill, the study’s lead author. Being glued to your home computer between 9 and 5 transfers the same tensions and inefficiencies experienced in the office to your home. At IBM, for instance, where Hill worked from his Utah home in the early 1990s, the task for those on flexible arrangements “is to get the job done.”
Whether you do it before noon or after midnight, in the park or on the beach, “you figure it out,” he says.
Wherever you end up working, try not to stay home all week. The 2007 Penn State paper found that too many days spent toiling at home can take its toll on professional relationships. “If you’re away from the office for more than half the work week,” says Gajendran, a former Penn State staffer who led the study, “the relationship with co-workers is harmed.”
Despite the technology, there’s no substitute for face time. Being in an office gives access to more conversations and non-verbal signs, which are key to revealing what people think. What’s more, “you all go off and have lunch together, talk about your kids, develop some chemistry aside from the direct work-related interactions,” says London Metropolitan University’s Huws. Eating together thereby becomes “a sort of exchange of pheromones.”
A paper by academics at the University of California, Davis published recently in the journal Human Relations noted a downside to telecommuting, contradicting some of the findings of other studies. Supervisors and co-workers who see another employee apparently working at a desk are likely to think more highly of that staff member, researchers found. If the employee is spotted working after hours, his or her standing will shoot up even further. That may not auger well for staff appraisals or promotions for those who work from home. But the bigger challenge to telecommuting could lie in convincing organizations to move from “a ‘face time’ culture [to] a results-oriented culture,” says Hill. “There are managers who can’t believe people are working unless [someone is] hanging over them,” she adds.
Educating companies about the virtues of telecommuting will be vital. The fact that in the current economic climate, many firms are desperate to lower costs, cut environmental impact and retain talented staff might make that job easier. After all, “you’re really only changing where the work is performed,” says the ILO’s Messenger—that and, of course, the well-being of employees.
Adam Smith wrote this article from home.