I read with interest the recent, excellent article on telecommuting.
It argues that telecommuting reduces a company’s costs, increases its productivity and furthers the green agenda. Well-argued as it is, I disagree. My belief is that it hinders teamwork, fosters resentment, reduces flexibility and makes it difficult to support your employees or identify true talent.
I should state, early on, that I don’t have any problem with occasional telecommuting. If my employees are flexible and are prepared to work late when needed, then as an employer, I’m more than happy to let them work from home to let the plumber in, or to see a school play. What I consider to be problematic, however, is the systematic approach to regular teleworking adopted by some companies. To me, this is mis-guided and detrimental to both the business and the employee, for five important reasons.
1. Team work
For most businesses these days, close collaboration is critical, not just within teams, but also between teams. Despite the great advances in technology such as teleconferencing or web conferencing, there’s nothing quite like being in the same room as a person or team. So much gets lost when you’re not able to witness actions and reactions of team members. There are always times when people say ‘yes’ but their body language means ‘no’, or perhaps shows that they ‘don’t understand’. You can only tell this from all the tiny, non-verbal cues that you pick up during face-to-face communication.
The power and importance of non-verbal communication is well documented. There’s a huge training industry that thrives on it! Teleworking, therefore, can only handicap your people, who are relying on close teamwork.
It may at first seem an irrelevance, but if you dig into your company’s psyche, you’ll soon understand just how much perception can impact productivity. Many of my friends work from home but I know from conversations with them that there’s a fair bit of coffee shop visiting and web-surfing going on. Such people are, effectively, skipping work.
Whilst I don’t think for one minute that everyone who works at home is at play, this perception does exist. It’s a position that is not helped when someone like Boris Johnson says, “Londoners should not use Olympics as excuse to stay home, skip work and open the fridge and hack off that bit of cheese.”
There is, therefore, a real risk that colleagues in the office resent those who work from home. What’s more, this type of resentment can easily crush productivity, not to mention morale and motivation.
3. Identifying talent
When it comes to promotion, it’s important to be objective about your people. However, there’s a danger that it becomes easier to promote those whom you’ve witnessed performing and who have demonstrated commitment to the company by their very presence in the office. Jack Welch recognised this in 2007, when he stated that “companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured”. He explained: “it’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every ‘crucible’ moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.” It’s hard to argue with that.
4. Supporting your people
The most successful, respected bosses are particularly good at praising and motivating, challenging and developing. One really has to question if the best way to do this is over the telephone or a webcam. Some people argue that you can always plan to have face-to-face meetings too, but it’s almost impossible to predict exactly when you’ll most be needed to give that helping hand, or a word of encouragement or a career-saving word of caution. Being there counts.
Finally, what sort of culture are you striving to create? If your business never has last minute requests from tricky customers, or never receives emergency orders from a long-standing client, then you are very lucky. No company I have ever worked for, however, has been able to predict when a late night was needed, when teamwork was called for or when all hands needed to be on deck. Can the people working from home help on these critical moments?
If you want maximum productivity and effectiveness, people need to work together, not apart. I’m with Marissa Mayer on that one.
Photo credit: Victor1558