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The strong case for working remotely

New technology has made teleworking easier and more efficient but there has been resistance to the idea from unexpected quarters. There is, however, a strong business case for working from home. By Jon Messenger, ILO senior research officer and Laura Addati, ILO Maternity protection and work-family specialist.

Comment | 25 March 2013
There’s been much debate about the merits – and demerits – of teleworking, since Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, issued a ban on working from home.

According to a confidential internal memo leaked to the press, Mayer said speed, quality, communication and collaboration are often sacrificed when staff work remotely, including from home. The best decisions, she said, are often made at impromptu meetings in the workplace.

Commentators have pointed to the apparent contradiction of an internet company believing that people have to be physically present to communicate – especially since 21st century technology has enabled many workers to effectively manage the work/life balance by working remotely.

The idea that employees need to be present in one physical location in order to be able to collaborate effectively is entrenched in the “old school” of management, which is built in part on the assumption that staff cannot be trusted to work from home.

Yet there is a wealth of evidence showing that teleworkers tend to be more productive and even to work longer hours than their office-based counterparts. According to a synthesis of studies on teleworking, some major companies, including Best Buy, British Telecom and Dow Chemical report that teleworkers are 35%-40% more productive.

The business case

And, although it may not be suitable for everyone or every organization, there is a strong business case that teleworking is a “win-win” for both employer and employee.

Firstly, it improves employee satisfaction: Freed from the rat race of the long commute, teleworkers can more easily find a balance between work and life – and the time they would have spent stuck in traffic jams can be used to work for the company.

Studies have shown that teleworking reduces employee turnover, which means saving the thousands of dollars it costs to train and hire new staff.

It also substantially reduces unscheduled absences – by an average of 63 per cent.

One of the underlying reasons may be that many employees who call in sick are not ill at all but they do so because of family issues, personal needs, and stress. Flexible hours give teleworkers a chance to handle family duties, run errands, or schedule appointments without losing a full day of work.

Teleworking can also save employers money in power consumption, real estate and relocation costs. It can also save time spent in unnecessary or inefficiently-run meetings. Web-based meetings tend to be better planned and are more likely to stay on message.

But probably one of the strongest reasons in favour of teleworking can be expressed in one word: diversity.

Women are still the primary care-givers and many do not participate in the labour force because of family responsibilities – often because they cannot manage the juggle between going to a place of work and looking after their children or elderly relatives.

Teleworking also opens up opportunities for disabled people who find it difficult to travel to a workplace. Some all-virtual employers hire remote staff  “sight unseen” – cutting down the potential for discrimination because of race, religion or other reasons.

This, in turn, opens up the talent pool for employers.

A question of trust

Although the trend is for more teleworking, and most managers say that they trust their employees, one-third of managers say they prefer to see their staff, to be sure they are really working. This points to the need for a change in company culture to a more modern approach, where staff are trusted.

Employees working from home also need to be self-directed, have a defined home office space and they have to understand that teleworking is not a substitute for child-care, although it does help working parents meet their family responsibilities. Working hours need to be scheduled around the needs of the family. Flexible and well-remunerated leave policies and affordable and quality social care services have also to be made available to both women and men.

Some employees may worry about being isolated or that their career advancement will be jeopardized. But with the raft of technological innovations available to companies – video conferences, instant messaging, email, even the old-fashioned telephone – combined with occasional face-to-face contact and performance-based measurement systems, the case for teleworking is a strong one.