Posts Tagged‘telecommuting’

Telecommuting For All: The Research Shows Benefits.

For all of my working life I pined for the ability to do my work from wherever I choose. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in my trackies, only checking email whenever it suited, no more I wanted to avoid having to waste hours of my day travelling to and from the office when I could just as easily do the work remotely. Last year, when I permanently joined the company I had  been contracting to the year previous, I was given such an opportunity and have spent probably about half the working year since at home. For me it’s been a wonderfully positive experience and, to humblebrag for a bit, my managers have been thoroughly impressed with my quality of work. Whilst I’ve always believed this would be the case I never had much hard evidence to back it up but new research in this field backs up my conclusions.

Working From Home

Researchers at the University of Illinois created a framework to analyse telecommuting employee’s performance. They then used this to gain insight into data taken from 323 employees and their corresponding supervisors. The results showed a very small, positive effect for the telecommuting workers showing that their performance was the same or slightly better than those who were working in the office. Perhaps most intriguingly they found that the biggest benefit was shown when employees didn’t have the best relationship with their superiors, indicating that granting flexible working arrangements could be seen as something of an olive branch to smooth over employee relations. However the most important takeaway from this is that no negative relationship between telecommuting and work performance was found, showing that employees working remotely can be just as effective as their in office counterparts.

As someone who’s spent a great deal of time working from various different places (not just at home) with other people in a similar situation I have to say that my experience matches up with research pretty well. I tend to be available for much longer periods of time, simply because it’s easier to, and it’s much easier to focus on a particular task for an extended period of time when the distractions of the office aren’t present. Sure after a while you might start to wonder if you’ll be able to handle human contact again (especially after weeks of conference calls) but it’s definitely something I think every employer should offer, if they have the capability to.

It also flies in the face of Marissa Mayer’s decision to outright ban all telecommuting in Yahoo last year, citing performance concerns. Whilst I don’t disagree with the idea that telecommuting isn’t for everyone (I know a few people who’d likely end up like this) removing it as an option is incredibly short sighted. Sure, there’s value to be had in face time, however if their performance won’t suffer offering them flexible working arrangements like telecommuting can generate an awful lot of goodwill with your employees. I know that I’m far more likely to stick around with my current company thanks to their stance on this, even if I probably won’t be able to take advantage of it fully for the next couple years.

Hopefully studies like this keep getting published as telecommuting is fast becoming something that shouldn’t have to be done by exception. Right now it might be something of a novelty but the technology has been there for years and it’s high time that more companies started to make better use of it. They might just find it easier to hold on to more employees if they did and, potentially, even attract better talent because of it. I know it will take time though as we’re still wrestling with the 40 hour work week, a hangover over 150 years ago, even though we’ve long since past the time where everyone is working factories.

One day though, one day.

The Gen Y Job Hop.

I’m no stranger to the interview room. At least once a year for the past 6 years or so I’ve found myself sitting in front of a panel of other people convincing them that I’m the right person for the job. Initially it started out of sheer boredom since the first couple jobs I had were entry level and seemed to come quite easily to me. Eventually it graduated into a thirst for new challenges as once something became routine the boredom would start to creep back in, and I’d get itchy feet. Whilst this has been one of the fastest ways for me to climb the IT ladder (believe me, I tried to advance within before looking externally, it never worked) it has more recently led to a few uncomfortable questions about where my loyalties lie. Switching to contracting has stayed these concerns somewhat, but a resume that spans as many jobs as years still raises questions from our current Gen-X and Baby Boomer employers.

For a long time to I believed that I was an exception rather than a rule. Many of my close friends and colleagues have been in their respective positions for years or have dedicated themselves to long term study (been there, not interested in going back just yet). Coming from a family parents who are Baby Boomers themselves having clocked up decades in employment in a single place certainly added to the stigma of jumping jobs as rapidly as I did. However taking a look outside my obviously small and biased sample showed me that I might just be yet another Gen Y upstart:

Additional high-level findings of the 2008 Life After College Survey include:

  • 43% of Gen Y are not in the career they expected to be in after college, either because they couldn’t find a job, or another opportunity presented itself
  • 60% are currently looking for another job or career, despite the fact that 57% indicated that they are also happy at their current job
  • 74% of recent graduates are in a career that aligns with their college major

“Constant job hopping can create frustration for employers, who would prefer three years of service out of each new hire,” says Jenny Floren, founder and CEO of Experience. “However, HR managers can increase retention by making slight shifts in their organizational practices to accommodate entry-level employees.”

It’s quite scary how accurately this lines up with my experiences. Technically I’m a Computer Engineer by training and whilst that has a strong focus on things like software development I also did quite a lot of hardware design as well as management courses. I took up a help desk position in the public service as it was an easy, well paying job and they were quite flexible with my hours when I was still at university. However the next job I managed to land was a junior system admin position (which in all honesty I was barely qualified for) which then snowballed into the position I’m in today. It’s not that I didn’t consider the career in an actual engineering firm, far from it. More it was that when I got that piece of paper in my hand switching into another career would’ve seen my pay packet take a hefty hit, around a third if memory serves me. For a 21 year old that was a fair chunk of cash and the cost/benefit didn’t quite add up.

If you’d asked me what the positives were in any of my other jobs (and really the same could be said for my current position) I’d tell you that I have an enormous amount of free time, the work is easy and the workplace is relaxed. Sounds pretty good right? Well the other side of the coin is the lack of challenge in most of my jobs. Maybe it was systemic since all the places I’ve worked at have either been in the public service or working for the public service (outsourcer) but most of my time isn’t spent solving novel problems. For the most part its battling bits of bureaucracy in order to get small packages of work done or explaining my decisions via reams of documentation. I think this is why I find so much pleasure in things like Geon as there are no barriers to progress but myself and every single step is an engineering problem just waiting to be solved.

It’s like crack to my inner engineer.

I think this also comes down in a shift in ideals between generations. The Gen Y crowd have grown up on a diet of rapidily evolving technology and if something can’t be done from home on their desktop or on their iPhone whilst on the move then it’s probably not worth doing. Again it seems like I’m not alone in thinking this, as the NY Times points out:

Old assumptions about what employees value in the workplace don’t always apply with Gen Y. Friendship is such a strong motivator for them that Gen Y workers will choose a job just to be with their friends. Boston-based Gentle Giant Moving once hired an entire athletic team. “It looked like a great work environment because of the people,” says rower Niles Kuronen, 26. “It was huge to be able to work with friends.” It feels normal for Gen Y employees to check in by BlackBerry all weekend as long as they have flexibility during the week. Sun Microsystem’s telecommuting program, for example, has kicked into high gear in response to Generation Y’s demands. Today more than half of Sun’s employees work remotely.

Honestly I could see myself working at a company for a much longer time period if I spent 50% of my work time telecommuting. Unfortunately the norm for most workplaces is that face time is of the utmost importance, despite how productive you might be. The inertia really comes from having to switch from a simple metric of “were you here on time” or “I could see that he was working” to “they achieved 100% of the goals I set”. The problem is predominately the difficulty employers have in defining solid metrics that guage how effective employees are when they are working remotely. There’s a definite shift occurring in some companies who have experienced positive results, but they’re still the exception to a long lasting rule.

Personally I feel its due to us Gen Ys growing up in a world of easily accessible information that drives us to get exactly what we want. Sure we’re happy to settle for whatever we can get in the interim but as long as we know there’s something out there that might better suit us we’re willing to take the risk of going for it. In my small sample world I think my bias towards them not being job hoppers is because they’ve found exactly what they were looking for, and the Gen Y drive merely propels them to excellence.

I’ll have to make a mental note to revisit this topic in a years time.

Your New Workplace.

I woke up this morning to a beautiful day. The sun lit up my house with a nice warm glow and I felt rested as I jumped out of bed. Casting a cursory glance to my clock showed that I had overslept by an hour, and this beautiful day was actually just the sun doing it’s usual thing, and I was late for work. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, I can make up the time whenever I want. However the drive to work at this time was a lot more congested then what I’m used to, with what is usually a 15 minute trip turning into over half an hour.

Casting my mind back a few months I remembered someone speaking to me about their working from home arrangements and how well it was working out for them. The idea struck me whilst I was stuck behind several other people caught up in the rat race: If a majority of people worked from home instead of a central workplace wouldn’t there be countless more benefits apart from the convenience of not having to go to work in the mornings? I know I’m not the first to think of this idea but it’s something that I felt could definitely have an impact after experiencing the horror of rush hour again after years of missing it.

The first benefit I can think of is happier employees. You’d be able to set up your own workspace as you saw fit and no one would complain if you showed up to work in your pajamas (as long as the webcam is from shoulders up, of course!). We all work better when we feel happy and the numbers show that about two thirds of telecommuting employees increase their productivity. I think this comes down to freeing people from the need to “look busy” whilst their at work and allows them to focus on actually completing tasks rather than fighting the fires that crop up at the office. I know my fiancée said she got a lot more work done in 4 hours at home then she did at the workplace, and she could take a break to watch TV on the couch; something she just couldn’t do at work.

There are also numerous cost savings for the organisation as well. Requiring less on-site infrastructure means that companies can save on things like air conditioning, facilities management, computing equipment and so on. Most telecommuting employees will use laptops which make a cheap desktop when combined with a docking station. For those that use their own computers the benefits are the same, since the company would only have to provide on-site resources if required. Companies that have implemented schemes such as this have already seen massive savings and it’s no surprise that they’re the ones still alive during these hard economic times.

One of the more obscure (and unfortunately intangible for the company until carbon trading is implemented) benefits of having a majority of employees working from home is the reduction in green house gas emissions. Whilst I don’t have any hard numbers on what the impact would be I can tell you this: In an internal combustion engine the most inefficient time for the engine to run is at idle, and this is how companies like Honda increased mileage considerably with their technologies like i-VTEC. Traffic jams cause cars to stay at idle for extended periods of time and the constant acceleration/deceleration only serves to cause excessive wear on all engine components. Spending less time in these inefficient cycles would see a reduction in green house emissions, something I’m sure everyone can appreciate.

This is not to say that it’s all roses when it comes to telecommuting, there are definitely many challenges that employees and employers must overcome before they can see the benefits. One of the biggest hurdles I see for employers is the transition from a “on the clock” model of performance to a metric based one. Employers often have a hard time figuring out how to objectively judge how their employees perform and the introduction of telecommuting forces their hand on this issue. There’s also that issue of face time with your employees and many companies put a lot of value on this. I’ve found that this is usually just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” and once they’ve done the analysis their view of telecommuting shifts very rapidly, and benefits the other non-telecommuting employees as well.

If you’re considering asking for a working from home arrangement I’d recommend this resource guide from CIO.com. There’s a lot of good information there on the pros and cons of implementing such an arrangement and it’s also aimed at the managerial level so you won’t have to rewrite it for your boss 🙂

Now to make up that hour of work I missed….