Remote Work: Does Telecommuting Really Work?

Guest author Julia Gifford works at DeskTime, which makes time-tracking and productivity software.

The Internet went crazy when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to ban remote working at the company, a decision that drastically affected more than 500 employees. Debate raged over the merits of remote working. Many thought Mayer's move was uncalled for and archaic, and predicted it would end up backfiring, while other saw her move as a last-resort attempt to re-focus Yahoo after a decade of falling behind its competitors.

(See also Forget Trends, Is Yahoo's Workplace Policy Right For Yahoo?)  

A Deeper Look: No One’s “Right”

Statistics are being offered left and right, and it’s becoming difficult to keep track of what’s “correct.” The fact of the matter is, there’s no one “right” answer. It’s more a process of deciding your own company's values, priorities and strategy.

On average, based on many studies, most people are actually more productive working independently from home. However, further study identifies certain types of workers who may be much more productive working in the office. It's important to look not only at the average statistics, but also at how the numbers break down.   According to a study done by economist E. Glenn Dutcher, summarised in The Wall Street Journal, mechanical and repetitive tasks were performed better in the office, whereas creative tasks had a higher success rate when employees were outside of the office.  

Marissa Mayer’s Argument: Favoring The Office

Mayer’s stated rationale for stopping remote working at Yahoo was that if everyone is to work as a team, they have to be in the same physical space. It’s clear that there are obvious benefits to a unified working environment – brainstorming with colleagues, random conversations that spark valuable idea, even simple teambuilding and camaraderie. This is what Yahoo management sent to employees:  

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Yahoo seems to think impromptu team meetings in a shared environment will bring the company closer together, and that the increased social interactions will stimulate new ideas that will benefit the company. That remains to be seen, but over the 8 months that Mayer has been in charge, Yahoo stock has risen 50%, and has continued to rise since the announcement in February. But the new policy doesn't kick in till June, so it's too early to measure its true impact.

(See also Why Banning Telecommuting Is A Sign Your Company Is Screwed.)

The Case For Remote Working

Over the past few years, many studies have brought to light various benefits of working from home. Let's look at a few of those benefits.

Many studies have shown that remote work leads to happier, more productive employees. Remote employees tend to work longer hours and are on average much healthier, taking fewer sick days (which saves money in variety of ways).

A Standford study followed a Chinese travel agency with more than 12,000 employees that experimented by having 200 employees telecommute. The findings showed the telecommuting employees had better working statistics than their office-bound colleagues. They took more calls, worked more hours and needed fewer less sick days.   Interestingly, though, only half of these 200 successful telecommuters expressed the desire to continue telecommuting once the experiment concluded, preferring the social interactions of the office.   In another study, British telecom giant O2 experimented by instructing 3,000 of its employees to try working from home for a day. More than a third (36%) of them reported being more productive from home. The employees nabbed an extra 1,000 hours of sleep, and 14% said they saw more than their families.

In addition, 1,000 hours usually spent commuting was instead spent working, saving 2.2 tons of CO2 emissions (equivalent to about 42,000 miles of diesel-car driving).

Remote working can be especially beneficial for young parents, and can be a great way for company's to burnish an image as an accepting and flexible organization looking to bridge the gender gap.     Remote working also makes it easier for employers to shop the global talent pool, and to hire physically disabled workers who might find it difficult to make it into the office every day.    What's best for your company? That depends on the company's culture, type of work, location and many other factors. But despite Marissa Mayer's best efforts, it's clear that remote working remains a growing trend supported by increasingly powerful technology solutions.

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.