The trouble with telecommuting

Telework can change office dynamics in ways you hadn't anticipated. Here are six 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 that 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 who teleworked, the less satisfied the officebound employees were.

There could be several reasons for this, according to Golden. First, there are fewer opportunities for workers to get to know one another, which could impede good working relationships. Second, the officebound workers may find themselves bending to accommodate the teleworkers -- for instance, 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, 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 says. "People think he's not available or that they may be imposing if they call him at home."

To combat that perception, 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 that in-office employees aren't inconvenienced by at-home colleagues, including requiring all employees to be in the office at certain times or on certain days; reshuffling responsibilities so officebound 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 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 into 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 note that he might need to return to the office if his role changes.

Managers should also consider the possibility that telework can become too good of an offer for some workers. Strong performers might forgo 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 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 telework tends not to be a permanent arrangement, he says. "They telecommute for a while but then go back into the corporate world," Ryan says.

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

The consensus among managers who have had it both ways is that telework should never be an all-or-nothing proposition. And whether you ultimately decide to allow an employee to work from home full time, 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 -- your business.

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Tam Harbert

Computerworld
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