Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer created a national controversy two months ago by announcing that the company will ban telecommuting and require all employees to work in the office. Best Buy quickly followed suit, spawning widespread debate about the future of flexible work arrangements in the U.S.
North Carolina’s own Bank of America actually fired a first shot in the telecommuting wars. Back in December, as reported by The Charlotte Observer, the Charlotte-based bank announced new restrictions on its work-from-home program, in which thousands of employees around the country had enrolled.
Are these companies on the front end of a new workforce trend, or are they failing to adapt to changing times and at risk of losing good workers because of it?
The latest data suggest the latter. And organizations in North Carolina that are serious about building talented, loyal teams and boosting productivity should take note.
A U.S. Census Bureau report in March found that 13 million people, or nearly 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, worked from home at least one day per week in 2010 – up from 9.2 million people, or 7 percent of the population, in 1997. Those who work from home some or all of the time tended to be in management or business roles, especially science, engineering or information technology.
Employers appear to benefit from this dynamic. A study published last year in the Monthly Labor Review noted that telecommuters typically work five to seven hours more a week than their office-bound colleagues.
And that is just one of the payoffs for companies that embrace telecommuting. Frequently, it also saves them substantial real estate and office costs and provides valuable leverage for attracting and retaining talent. Research firm Global Workplace Analytics found that 95 percent of employers report that telecommuting has a high impact on talent retention. That’s not surprising, since employees save time and expense on commutes and are better able to juggle family obligations.
Of course, even firms with liberal telecommuting policies acknowledge it’s not for everyone. Some jobs can’t be done from home. And some people don’t have the right personality for it.
Know the rules
Still, it’s unlikely that the trend toward telecommuting either full time or occasionally will reverse itself, so organizations and employees need to know the basic rules for working from home.
In talking with firms deeply committed to telecommuting, three key principles emerge: talent management, communication and accountability.
First, working well from home requires disciplined, focused self-starters who can thrive without much face-to-face interaction. Companies’ talent management programs must identify who fits that bill, and employees must be self-aware enough to assess whether they have those traits.
Consistent communication is just as crucial. Website development company New Media Campaigns has an office in Carrboro, but its 12 employees are free to work wherever they want. After the firm was founded in 2006, that flexibility proved great for morale – and also yielded some duplication of work as dispersed staff built 100 websites a year.
New Media swiftly addressed that communication challenge with technology, and today arranges regular online check-ins through Google Hangouts. It also launched “Fridays with the Firm” lunches each week that are paid for by the company and encourage staff to interact in person.
Co-founder Clay Schossow says the firm’s virtual model is working – annual revenues have grown steadily to more than $1 million – and its telecommuting policy was recently decisive in luring a talented website developer who wanted to be on hand to assist with his young family.
At RTI International, a global research institute based in the Triangle, accountability has been crucial to the success of a telecommuting program through which more than a third of its 2,800 employees work from home some or all of the time.
Employees who spend 75 percent or more of their time at home are part of a formal telecommuting program that involves several levels of sign-off and detailed policies governing IT equipment and security, ergonomics and work spaces. And because RTI is a government contractor, all employees have to track their time carefully.
“It’s important to set expectations upfront, and we hold people to it,” said Martha Roberts, RTI’s senior vice president of human resources. “We hold you accountable for the work product – not just whether you’re showing up at the office.”
For New Media Campaigns, RTI and other organizations throughout the state, that kind of flexible mindset is showing up most prominently in the best place of all – satisfied workers who are driving growth.
Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.