Telecommuting, which has been around since the 1970s, has become an increasingly popular work practice. However, forty years of technological advancements, worldwide interconnectivity and skyrocketing adoption rates have redefined “working from home” in the new millennium.
As a regular telecommuter, I’ve found that achieving an equitable balance of the time one devotes to family, career and personal well-being is a real challenge. However, with the right strategies in place, you can find a balance between the telecommuting pros and cons and attain that enlightened state known as work-life balance.
The Yin: The Powerful Benefits of Telecommuting
More often than not, telecommuting makes better workers. One of the by-products of telecommuting is that it fosters a work ethic from the inside out; studies since the 1990s have consistently documented that working from home at least part time increases a worker’s productivity.
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- 86% of telecommuters say they are more productive in their home office.1
- 20-40% of supervisors report that their teleworkers are more productive and take less time to complete tasks at a higher quality.2
Open-minded and flexible businesses have achieved huge gains in cost reduction by implementing a telecommuting workforce. In fact, according to the Telework Research Network, nearly 6-out-of-10 employers identify cost savings as a significant benefit of telecommuting programs.1 Savings come from the obvious factors, like reduced office space costs and technology costs, but also from unlikely cost centers for both the employer and telecommuter:
- Unscheduled absences cost $1,800/employee per year. Companies with a telework program realize a 63% reduction in unscheduled absences.3
- Average real estate savings with full-time teleworkers is $10,000/employee per year.3
- Annually, employees can save up to $3,800 in gas costs and productivity loss by working from home just two days per week.4
The average U.S. worker commutes an average of 10,000 miles per year; altogether, the office workforce consumes a whopping 67 billion gallons of gas annually. Because telecommuting reduces total vehicle miles traveled per year by more than 35 billion, it represents a conservation of almost two billion gallons of gas, which adds up to a significant reduction in our fossil fuel dependency.4
Telecommuting also enables employers to reduce their office space, office energy use and real estate costs. Teleworkers decrease redundant purchases of certain office supplies, including toilet paper, paper towels, facial tissues, etc. Employees who work at home also don’t require duplicate office equipment, such as landline phones, fax machines, office chairs and other office equipment that eventually winds up in landfills.
The Yang: The Most Common Pitfalls of Telecommuting
By circumstance or design, many telecommuters work in physical isolation. Without a cautious approach to socialization, whether it is physical or virtual, isolation often leads to loneliness, depression and even workforce attrition.
- 6-in-10 people ‘agree’ that not seeing colleagues face-to-face makes telecommuters feel socially isolated.5
- Lack of social support in the workplace is a leading cause of depression.6
While teleworkers are notoriously more productive than their office-bound colleagues, the comfort of working from home, coupled with around-the-clock connectivity, sometimes causes us to forget when to stop. In some cases, telecommuters are afraid to stop, concerned that the “privilege” requires flex workers to toil into the wee hours just to prove to their manager that they are worthy. It’s far too easy to fall into the “Superman syndrome” if we convince ourselves that our job depends upon our being omnipotent.
Because teleworkers are often seen as passive—perhaps incidental—members of the staff, they often get lower performance reviews, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their office-bound colleagues.7
A study by MIT Sloan Management Review shows that, whether intentional or not, managers often choose workers for promotion who show “presenteeism.”
- 56% believe remote work damages employee’s promotion opportunities.5
- Workers seen at their desk during regular hours are viewed as “responsible” and “dependable.” If they are seen at their desks early, late or on weekends, they’re upgraded to “committed” and “dedicated.”8
The Balance: Strategies to Connect Opposing Forces Into a Single, Powerful Work-life
Expectations and Success
Telecommuting only works when the job is being done to a level acceptable to both parties. Unlike its office counterparts, a business cannot tell its workers, “Be here at work from 9 to 5, take one hour for lunch, and have that report finished and on my desk at the end of the day.” Likewise, unlike their office-bound colleagues, telecommuters cannot declare, “I want a cubicle, one hour for lunch, and a parking space.” Successful telecommuting cultures create policies and procedures designed to satisfy the unique needs of both the company and their teleworking employees.
Virtual Break Rooms
At the office, coworkers can gather at common areas to foster workplace relationships, engage in informal brainstorming or simply refresh their minds. Similarly, telecommuters can establish a virtual break room where they can connect with colleagues, managers and other business associates online for instantaneous or near-instantaneous interactions. This virtual forum limits the feeling of isolation and constitutes a virtual desk where managers can “see” the worker doing their job.
Interactive Technologies Unlike the nameless, faceless conference calls and emails of yesterday, modern technology focuses on facilitating human interaction online. Advances in video conferencing, gaming, document collaboration, email and more have created unique, business-optimized tools that enable meaningful and personal interaction in a digital world. From file sharing technology to project management tools, solutions are readily available that mimic natural interactions through workflows, sharing and personalization.
“Just one more minute. . . .” How many times have you said these words only to work another thirty minutes or an hour? How often do you get caught up in personal email dialogs or social media tasks? If you leave your computer open, you’ll remain a slave to it. Try to consciously make the choice to power down your computer, close your laptop and put your smart phone on vibrate after a specified hour so you aren’t tempted to return to your work and noodle on projects. Of course, we sometimes realize that we’ve forgotten an important task and must re-engage, but at least reopening the laptop is significantly less painful than having to drive back to the office to do the work.
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1Telework Research Network (2012). The Latest Telecommuting Statistics.
3Telework Research Network (2012). Cost and Benefits: Advantages of Telecommuting for Companies.
4GovLoop (2012). Telework Calculator.
6Ruiz, R. (2007). Is Your Office Making You Sick?
7Elsbach, K. and Cable, D. (2012). Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters.
8 Schoenberger, C. (2012). Working From Home? Beware a Career Hit.