Telecommuting: Are You “Working” From Home?

Last year, newly installed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made employees angry by taking away telecommuting privileges. She had discovered employees widely abusing the luxury of being able to work from home. The same technology that had afforded these workers the convenience of doing work while keeping one eye on their favorite afternoon soap opera had betrayed them: The company’s online work portal showed that many employees had not logged into the system during the hours they claimed to be working. So, about a year ago, Mayer took away telecommuting rights, requiring all employees to work strictly from the office. Rage among not just Yahoo! employees, but workers across the country, ensued. The vast majority of today’s office workers also have computers at home, and most companies offer online work portals, or at the very least, e-mail systems that can be accessed away from the office.

With this technology has come a growing belief that it doesn’t matter where the work gets done, as long as it gets done—and the belief that work can get done just as easily and as high-quality from home as it can from behind the cubicle wall. This is a debate that has been far from settled, and it comes with some misconceptions. One is that women, who often are juggling greater responsibilities at home, will utilize telecommuting more, and that telecommuting is an option that mostly appeals to younger workers.

Maybe surprisingly, The Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc. (FSG/WLF) found that among a national probability survey of 556 full-time employed adults, nearly one-third (31 percent) do most of their work away from their employer’s location, and nearly three out of four of those remote workers are men.

“Failure to understand how and where work gets done and by whom, and failure to support these operational strategies with the attention and resources warranted—including training and guidance—can compromise the optimal performance and well-being of both organizations and employees,” explains flexible workplace strategist and author Cali Williams Yost, CEO, Flex+Strategy Group. “Almost one-third of the work that gets done today gets done from home, coffee shops, and other locations, yet too many corporate leaders treat telework as a disposable option, as in the case of Yahoo! Telework is not a perk, and it’s certainly not just for moms and Gen Yers. Rather, it’s an operational strategy. Think of it as anything less and organizations ignore what has become a vital part of their business and the way their people actually work.”

Interesting findings from the survey include the fact that the typical full-time remote worker is:

  • NOT a woman: Among those who telework, 71 percent are men.
  • NOT a parent: There is no significant difference between remote workers with or without kids.
  • NOT a Millennial: There is no significant difference in the age groups of remote workers.

Other highlights:

  • At employer sites, respondents reported doing most of their work either in a private office (30 percent), cube, or open office space (33 percent), with women (43 percent) significantly more likely than men (27 percent) to work in cubes/open spaces. Overall, cube/open office workers struggle the most.
  • Cube/open office workers were the largest group reporting less work life flexibility now than at this time last year (42 percent) when compared to their remote and private office colleagues, and of those who feel they have the least control over their work life flexibility, cube/open office workers were the largest percentage.
  • Cube/office workers were significantly more likely to say they didn’t use or improve their work life flexibility because “it might hurt your career/others might think you don’t work as hard” when compared to remote workers. Yost believes worries about a “mommy track” stigma may be one reason fewer women work remotely.
  • Cube/office workers received the least amount of training to help them manage their work life flexibility. Remote workers (47 percent) were significantly more likely to receive such guidance compared to those in cubes/open spaces (35 percent).

These findings tell me that telecommuting is an option that may benefit an array of workers, but that many—especially women—are not taking advantage of it due to corporate culture. Their companies may offer great online portals that make telecommuting easy, and they may even theoretically encourage flexibility, but in reality, only offer promotions and growth to those who put in long hours at the office. Offering employees a flexible work life is a great first step to attracting and retaining talented employees, but it won’t succeed if those who choose to work a significant amount of time from home are denied growth opportunities and chances to increase their salary.

To some, the Yahoo! example of workers abusing their telecommuting privileges points to the need to closely monitor off-site employees. But to me, a question comes to mind: If these employees who didn’t log into the online work portal when they claimed to be “working” nevertheless turned in reliably high-quality deliverables, then who cares?

One of the greatest luxuries of technology is it gives us the ability to focus on what really matters—the end products produced by each employee, rather than meaningless measures such as the amount of hours logged inside the cubicle or executive suite. After all, we’ve all known the clever slacker who does the minimum amount of work while spending the bulk of the day surfing the Internet, gossiping with co-workers, taking innumerable coffee and snack breaks while logging in a “tough” 12-hour day behind their office desk.

If this worker produced twice as much high-quality work while sitting on his couch and watching Days of Our Lives, would you, as the company CEO, care? I wouldn’t.

Do you offer flexible work-life options including the ability to telecommute from an online work portal, or other system? How do you ensure these options don’t affect work quality and productivity? If you don’t offer work-from-home options, why not?