Productivity software

Telecommuting: 6 Questions to Ask Before You Say Yes

5. What About Employees "Left Behind" in the Office?

Timothy Golden, associate professor in the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, published a study earlier this year suggesting that allowing some employees to telecommute can decrease job satisfaction for co-workers who remain in the office and increase the chances they will leave the company.

Golden studied a sample of 240 professional employees from a midsize company. The study found that the more people in the organization that teleworked, the less satisfied the office-bound employees were.

There could be several reasons for this, according to Golden. First, there are fewer opportunities for workers to get to know each other, which could impede good working relationships. Second, the office workers may find themselves bending to accommodate the teleworkers -- for example, they have to schedule meetings around when teleworkers are going to be in the office.

And third, office workers may be more likely to be tapped for certain tasks simply because they are handy, whereas the teleworker is left undisturbed. "The teleworker may very well be available," says Golden. "but they aren't perceptually there in the moment."

While telework has gone smoothly for the most part at Cox Enterprises Inc., that misperception of availability has been a problem, says John Bell, assistant vice president of information systems engineering at the broadband service provider.

"Someone will stop by an office, and the door is closed and the lights are out," he relates. "People think he's is not available or that they may be imposing if they call him at home." To combat those missed signals, Cox has started requiring teleworkers to post their schedules on their doors so other staff members know when they are available.

Golden suggests other ways to ensure in-office employees are not inconvenienced by at-home colleagues, including requiring all employees to be in the office at certain times or on certain days; reshuffling responsibilities so office-bound employees aren't dependent upon remote workers; and scheduling informal social times, separate from formal meetings, to reinforce trust and camaraderie among the entire workforce.

6. Do You Have an Exit Strategy?

It may seem counterintuitive to be thinking about an exit strategy while you're in the throes of trying to approve a telework arrangement, but experts like Keefe suggest that very thing.

Even as he's hammering out details on how often an employee will need to come in to the office, Keefe puts a time limit on the teleworking arrangement. "You don't want to set a false expectation that this is the way it's always going to be," he says. "It's really highly dependent on the role they are in currently, and things change." A new department manager may prefer to have workers in the office, for example. Or an IT consolidation project might require employees to come back to the office.

Particularly if the person is a high performer who might come up for a promotion, it's important to talk about the fact that he might need to return to the office when his role changes.

Managers should also consider the possibility that telework can become, for some workers, too good of an offer -- high performers might forego advancement, or even leave the company, in order to continue teleworking. "It becomes a lifestyle," notes Keefe. "I've had a couple of key people leave the organization, so now I'm more cautious about that."

Ironically, the opposite situation can also occur: Employees who pushed for and received permission to telework may find it's not as wonderful as they expected. They may feel lost, disconnected from the workplace and the office banter. Rather than admitting the mistake, they may look for work in another office.

In fact, there is a higher degree of churn among teleworkers today than in the past, according to Sean Ryan, an analyst at IDC. Statistics indicate that, for whatever reason, telework is not a permanent arrangement, he says. "They telecommute for a while, but then go back into the corporate world."

Indeed, research from 2005 published in the Journal of Management suggests that allowing insufficiently screened employees to work more than three days out of the office results in long-term decreases in productivity and staff morale and increases in staff turnover "as they move on to jobs where they feel more included," says Gartner's Morrison.

In conclusion, the consensus among managers who've had it both ways is that telework is never an all-or-nothing proposition. Whether you ultimately decide to allow an employee to work from home full time or part time, or not at all, your decision should be the result of careful consideration of the needs of the worker, his colleagues and managers and -- most important -- the needs of your business.

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