Telecommuting Is Not Cure to All Workplace Ills

Ann All

As fuel prices rise, interest in telecommuting does as well, as I wrote just last week. My blog mentioned several companies that were adding or expanding telecommuting options for their employees in response to high prices at the pump, and also to attract talented folks who may not want to relocate for a job.


Yet some early advocates of telecommuting are beginning to question the practice, eWEEK points out. Among those recalling telecommuting workers to the office are Intel, AT&T, HP and some federal government agencies. And IBM, which lets 40 percent of its employees work outside the office, participated in a telecommuting study by Northeastern University professor Jay Mulki.


AT&T and HP recalled workers in an effort to consolidate operations. Concerns over the potential loss of sensitive data over non-secure network connections led the feds to scale back telecommuting. Intel said it hoped putting more workers in the office would improve team relations.


There is growing evidence that physical proximity may make it easier to collaborate with colleagues, as I wrote in March. A number of companies, including HP, Intel and Cisco, are promoting intra-office collaboration by tearing down cubicle walls in favor of open work areas filled with conference rooms, tables and armchairs.


Mulki's telecommuting study found that telecommuters felt isolated from their co-workers and experienced difficulty in attaining a work-life balance. The latter finding is ironic, since a better work-life balance has long been touted as a major benefit of telecommuting.


I personally find that working from home, which I do regularly, makes it all too easy to extend my work day. Yet it also gives me the flexibility to stay home when my 7-year-old is sick or school's not in session.


Blaming telecommuting for work-related stress is kind of like blaming that pint of Ben & Jerry's in your freezer for weight gain. John Estes, a VP at recruiting specialist Robert Half Technology, tells eWEEK says that workers who struggle with work-life balance tend to do so whether or not they telecommute. He says:

If you're wired 24 hours a day with a BlackBerry, it can be hard to resist the temptation to check your e-mail during dinner or on vacation. This can happen to anybody.

Full-time telecommuting is "one of those things that can sound better than it actually is," says Estes.


I'd agree. While I wouldn't want to work for a company where telecommuting wasn't an option, I feel happier and more productive when I'm at the office at least a few days a week. It's easier for me to stay home when I need to, however, because my work is largely a one-woman show.


Mulki suggests that workers should utilize their own social networks and technological tools to avoid feeling isolated. I do both. A supportive manager is also important, he says.


I'd add that supportive co-workers also make a difference. A co-worker at a previous job complained at length about the fact that I was allowed to telecommute and he wasn't -- instead of taking it up directly with a manager. His passive-aggressive approach made me defensive and didn't help his case.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jun 2, 2008 10:33 AM Working Remotely and Loving IT Working Remotely and Loving IT  says:
I love working remotely. I get 10X more work done than I did in the office when I went to more meetings that I really needed to. Also, the office chit-chat does eat into your time during the day... and we all know everyone does it -- the American Idol water cooler debates etc. I agree that sometimes I do work more hours than I would in the office but it becomes a lesson in self-discipline which working remotely is anyway. I have a supportive boss and co-workers which does help. I think the experience has taught me about how to get creative to stay in touch and not feel isolated and how to really get things done regardless of the environment. Reply
Jun 2, 2008 5:38 PM Sheila Connally Sheila Connally  says:
I agree that telecommuting is not for everyone, nor is it a cure-all, one-size-fits-all solution. You have to be very disciplined and organized to make telecommuting successful. I have found that it has vastly improved my home life and my attitude toward my job. I went from driving a two hours round-trip to the office to working from home. It was a tremendous blessing, so please, when you publish anything negative about telecommuting, make sure to point out its benefits for those who have the ability to telecommute and maintain job performance while improving home life. I don't think I ever want to go back to working an office!!!! Reply
Jun 2, 2008 5:59 PM Christine Taylor Christine Taylor  says:
Some large corporations may be ramping down on telecommuting but others are ramping up. To your point, those are overcoming bandwidth and security issues by deploying broadband WANs for telecommuters. Team interaction can be an issue, probably my biggest personal issue. I telecommute in a virtual company; we all work from home and are scattered across the U.S. We have to be careful to communicate frequently through email and the phone. We also see each other a few times a year at tradeshows.Still beats fighting traffic to drive to the office though! Been there, done that! Reply
Jun 2, 2008 6:35 PM David Shull David Shull  says:
I have been a telecommuter for many years and I learned a long time ago how to manage the work-life-balance, probably too much shaded to work. However, I think one of the more challenging sides of telecommuting is - are your coworkers in the office prepared for telecommuting? By that, when one or more individuals go on a telecommuter program, are the office staff prepared and skilled in that area? It's a two way street and collaboration becomes one of the biggest challenges. Being in the office allows for a lot of face-to-face or indirect collaboration which is very valuable. When individuals start telecommuting then there needs to be a way to collaborate so the telecommuter isn't isolated from the office staff (coworkers) and vice versa. Reply
Jun 2, 2008 6:53 PM Kelon Kelon  says:
Like all things, this is a balance. I miss the comradely but not the commute. I'm hear to watch my three and five year olds grow up...but can still be MUCH more @ home versus what I was in the office. My team is virutual...San Jose, India, Boston, England... so collaboration works on my phone here at home just like in the office. Reply
Jun 2, 2008 7:14 PM Bill Trussell Bill Trussell  says:
I would be very cautious about drawing conclusions from those enterprises that are now cutting back on telecommunting. It is my belief that they are doing so in response to negative feedback from those who remain in the office full time. While I would not agree with creating an environment filled with animosity I do believe that if such a policy is in place it should be noted to all concerned that telecommuting is being fostered for many reasons, not just as a benefit to a privilaged few. I have been experiencing the advantages of telecommuting for nearly three years and find most of the excuses for it not working to be just that, excuses. While I support efforts to colaborate with others, I would point out that it is very difficult to do so with outsourced partners and internal staff in offshore locations, but the expectation is there nonetheless. I have also found that functional managers tend to enjoy having their assigned resources in the office rather than offsite. For whatever reason it makes many managers feel more important to see their "charges" around more. Reply
Jun 2, 2008 7:54 PM Michael Hackmer Michael Hackmer  says:
I think your selection of large companies unfairly devalues the benefit of telecommuting. With gas prices at all-time highs, saving employees from long commutes keeps their costs down and stretches the income of your salaried employees.Some of the companies you mentioned have more permanent telecommute structures, with people working a vast majority of their time at home offices. I know, b/c I've worked with a lot of these people at HP, Intel and elsewhere.I think more research into maintaining a 1 or 2-day telecommute policy for small to mid-sized corporations is more in order, because traffic congestion and gas prices are a main source of discomfort for employees, and retention of skilled workers, especially in an economic slow-down, is an important issue for small businesses.I know I, for one, would love to telecommute one day a week. I would get more done, work a little longer, but still have time to handle other things for my family as needed. It works for my other colleagues... Reply
Aug 6, 2008 8:25 AM OR Bloggerette OR Bloggerette  says:
Im a former IT manager at Intel and can say, first hand, that Intel is not a GPTW (great place to work) for its employees when it comes to work/life balance and telecommuting. I wouldnt bother blogging on this topic if I was alone on this matterbut Im not many employees have voiced their complaints and some have lost their jobs over it. Unfortunately, Intel (and other companies like it) missed a cost-effective way to retain good employees and still get very high-quality work completed (regardless of the geographic constraints) by reneging on the telecommuting benefit . I quit my management job at Intel in November 2007 and am now working for a company that truly practices what it preaches. The managers where Im at now seem to be very skilled in virtual team management and in keeping project momentum in a virtual/remote environment. Their basic theory is to treat employees like adults by allowing them to adjust their schedules to get the work completed. Project slips are documented and factored into the employees annual review. As far as I can tell, project slips have occurred but they are few and none have been attributed to working from home. Reply

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