BBC Capital

Generation Work

Working from home: The good, the bad and the inevitable

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

Easy life?

Working from home might seem like an ideal situation – but there can be downsides for both employees and their companies. (Thinkstock)

When Yahoo and Best Buy pulled the plug on their telecommuting programs earlier this year, they reignited the debate over the merits of flexitime versus face time.

But their surprising announcements hardly signalled a reversal of the trend toward more telecommuting. In fact, these days, significantly more organisations in the US are offering employees the option to work from home, as are companies in the UK and some other countries.

About 63% of US employers allowed at least some people to work from home on an occasional basis in 2012, up from 34% in 2005, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute. Employers permitting telework on a regular basis rose to 33% from 31%.

Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute, believes the globalisation of business is helping to advance telework.

“Working from home seems less revolutionary when you’re having to coordinate around different time zones and never see some employees in person because they’re on the opposite side of the world,” he said. “It becomes easier to see that where you do the work is not as important as the quality of the work.”

Telework seems poised for further growth, given continuing advances in mobile technology and the millennial generation’s desire to work wherever and whenever they choose. In addition, many members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, want flexible work arrangements to help them manage their family lives. And baby boomers, the group born just after the end of World War II, would like to work from home to make caring for elderly parents easier.

“Across all generations, flexibility is one of our top three predictors of employee retention,” said Jen Steinmann, chief talent officer at the professional services firm Deloitte, where more than 70% of employees enjoy some work location flexibility.

In addition to recruiting and retention advantages, many companies with telecommuting policies report higher employee satisfaction and productivity, along with reduced real estate costs.

Vulnerable

Despite such potential benefits, however, telework and other flexible work programs remain vulnerable when times get tough. Both Best Buy and Yahoo ended their telecommuting programs as part of their efforts to improve their faltering businesses – whether or not their flexible workplaces actually contributed to their troubles. And since the recession and financial crisis of 2008, the number of people in the US working from their homes has continued to grow, but at a slower pace.

The growth rate for employees telecommuting multiple days a week slowed to 3.2% in 2010 from double-digit gains before the economic downturn, according to an analysis of US government data by the research firm Global Workplace Analytics.

In this still weak job market, some employees who would like to work from home are more reluctant to do so. They understandably fear hurting their careers by being “out of sight, out of mind” and getting stigmatised as less dedicated and hard working.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a campaign in 2012 called Turbo-Charge Telework to combat such concerns and misperceptions about telework. The campaign, which included webinars explaining telework and a “myth-busting” guide for supervisors, helped increase the number of employees approved for telework by more than 10,000, according to Mika Cross, the USDA’s work/life and wellness program manager.

The key to success

Even with clear policies permitting telework, it often takes a proactive boss to make it a success. That’s why some employers are urging managers to take the lead.

State Street, a US-based provider of financial services to institutional investors, had permitted flexible work arrangements on an informal basis for many years, but decided in 2009 to make it an integral part of the corporate culture.

So, the company created a flexible work organisation, including two dedicated employees and an executive advisory board, and developed the Manager-Initiated Flex Program.

“We took a step back and flipped things upside down,” said Maia Germain, vice president of IT and operations transformation and the flex work program at State Street. “We felt we’d have greater adoption of flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting, if we empowered managers to assess what is feasible and speak to employees about it. It reduced the angst or fear employees might have about approaching their managers.”

Now, managers initiate about half of all conversations about telework and other flexible arrangements, and nearly 70% of State Street employees have some type of flexibility in their schedules.

State Street has developed guidelines to fit various countries’ local employment laws but finds interest in telework varies by culture, Germain said.

For instance, in some Asian countries, “work and life are very separate, and the small home environment may not be suitable for doing work”.

State Street, the USDA and other organisations also are offering managers training on how to deal with flexible arrangements, such as measuring the performance of remote workers and using online tools for communication and collaboration. Some workplace experts believe the work-from-home programs at Yahoo and Best Buy failed because they were not properly designed and managed.

“Telework is the most sophisticated type of workplace flexibility and definitely requires new management approaches,” said Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress at the nonprofit human resources association WorldatWork. “You have to clearly define productivity measures because output is what matters, not seeing someone sitting at a desk for long hours. And the teleworker and boss need to be above-average in communication and organisation.”

Flexibility is one of our top three predictors of employee retention. — Jen Steinmann, Deloitte