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What the Telecommuting Debate Should Be About

What the Telecommuting Debate Should Be About

Even before Yahoo’s entry into the telecommuting debate, there has been an ongoing discussion, with passion on both sides, about what telecommuting really means. But perhaps debate isn’t really the right word, as people are often talking past each other rather than actually engaging.

People in favor of telecommuting say it saves money and the environment, while improving productivity, creativity and quality of life. On the other side, people talk about lower productivity, limited collaboration, and conference calls interrupted by children, pets, deliveries and housework. I think both sides are missing the point.

The fact is telecommuting is not an unmitigated good. Nor is it a refuge for pajama clad slackers. It’s very mixed. Some studies say that working from home makes people more productive. A study done by Enkata finds the opposite is true. The truth depends on the type of job, the personality of the employee, the skill of the manager, the health of the company and a dozen other factors.

When managers are allowing people to work from home, they need to study the specifics of the position rather than make a blanket determination. Here are a few key questions that companies should ask as they look at telecommuting.

  • How will managers measure productivity? For some jobs, like call center agents or sales, output is simple to measure and understand. For other jobs, especially those where creativity is required, it’s much harder to measure quality and output. Call centers have been able to “go virtual” at an industrial scale because it is so easy to measure productivity. If managers can’t measure productivity and quality, it gets much harder to manage remote workers.
  • How clear is the mission? When a person knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, they can do it remotely. If the objective is vague, the company is transitioning, or programs are in flux, remote workers will struggle to keep up with the thinking in headquarters. If people are building a product to spec, they can be anywhere. But if the product design is evolving in the break room, remote workers get lost very quickly.
  • Is collaboration productive? Some types of work are generally solitary by nature. Examples would include software coding, writing, document processing, or back office functions like approving health care claims. Some jobs work better when people are in the same room. Marketing and sales strategy evolves through animated discussion, not email threads. Brainstorming in email is never as effective.

The answer to these questions should give employers a pretty clear idea of what their stance on telecommuting for any given position should be. Highly measurable, clearly defined jobs for individual contributors are great. But think about the situation Marissa Mayer was facing with the remote workers at Yahoo.  Most of these were jobs without clear productivity metrics. The corporate mission is clearly changing. Yahoo needs brainstorming and collaboration.  This is the last place you would expect people to be working from home.

At the end of the day, however, the issue of telecommuting is probably beside the point. In turns out, in Enkata’s research, we’ve found that the manager has a substantially greater impact on employee productivity than the location of the employee. Good managers get good results. Bad managers are terrible.

If Yahoo had a problem of unhappy, checked out, underperforming employees, forcing them into the office is an unlikely path to generate creativity and collaboration. Then again, the Yahoo thing was never really about telecommuting. That said, there is a certain irony of the Yahoo situation is that a high tech CEO was reduced to looking at VPN logs to understand who was working and who wasn’t.Is this the best solution that technology has to offer?

There are a lot of benefits to telecommuting. But they don’t come easy.  Companies that want telecommuting need to start with a review of their management practices. Are the managers trained to actually manage? Do they have the tools they need to see what their employees are doing, measure productivity, and hold employees accountable to targets? Do remote workers know what the job is, and how to get help and support when they need it? If the company doesn’t address these issues, their telecommuting program will fail. Of course, if they don’t address these issues, their office based workforce will fail too. As Marissa Mayer reviews the results of her policy change, she should consider this as well.

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Daniel Enthoven

Chief Marketing Officer, Enkata
Daniel Enthoven brings twenty years of technology and call center experience to the Enkata team. Dan was one of the early employees of Nuance Communications, developing their vertical marketing and channel sales programs. Later, Dan joined BeVocal as Director of ...