Is Telecommuting a Threat to Company Culture?

September 24, 2019
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Author: Tyran Saffold Jr

Over the years, telecommuting has become less of a perk and more of a demand for most employees. Working from home is becoming the new norm in the economy. According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, during 2018-19, 15 percent of all wage and salary employees worked from home. That is a jump from 7 percent in 2010, and the numbers are growing. But how will telecommuting affect company culture?

Working From Home Comes With Pros and Cons

The Tradeoff

Through telecommuting, employers save money and have an easier time attracting talent. These are valuable benefits in a tight labor market. Employees receive job flexibility, avoid commutes and improve job satisfaction; many telecommuters claim higher productivity. With all these positives, there may still be unintended consequences.

Culture Impact

Companies that use culture as a magnet to draw talent will be hard-pressed to prove that metric, especially if most of the culture-impacting employees are telecommuting.

Employee engagement is key to a positive culture, but telecommuting may disengage employees and create a larger problem down the line. A November 2018 Workplace Trends and Virgin Pulse survey revealed that two-thirds of employees who work from home are always, or very often, not engaged. For the most part, employees who are out of sight are out of mind.

The need for culture-boosting collaboration is evident. Companies like Yahoo, Aetna and Best Buy called their workers back into the office. Why? Mainly due to a lack of collaborative energy between employees. If your most talented employees are solo all-stars, how does that help the other members of the team? Talent management becomes more important with active telecommuting policies.

“(Managers) may have realized how blind and invisible remote workers are,” said Judith Olson, a distance-work expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine. “(Managers) don’t know what’s going on at the remote location. (They don't know) what work that person is doing or what distractions they may have to deal with. And the remote worker doesn’t know what is going on with the manager.”

Productivity

Studies on productivity when telecommuting have been inconclusive, with results varying across industries. One such study, conducted by Trip, was detailed in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Trip (NASDAQ: CTRP), China’s largest travel agency, decided to test the efficiency of working from home. During a nine-month experiment, a percentage of Trip’s employees telecommuted. From there, a comparison was done between the work-from-home employees and those who stayed in the office.

The performance of the telecommuters increased by 13 percent during the testing period. The improvement came from a 9 percent increase in time worked during their shifts. Trip noticed that employees who worked from home had reductions in breaks, time off and sick days. The remaining 4 percent is attributed to the increase in the number of calls worked per minute.

“If you don’t have commuting time, if you don’t have chit-chat time in the office, telecommuters can work longer and harder,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute. “It all comes down to organizational leaders. Do they inspire respect and support for all, whether they work at home or not? That is what makes the difference.”

Something Has to Give

Allowing employees to work from home can increase job satisfaction and retention. Based on Trip’s nine-month experiment, most results were positive. Increased employee productivity and money saved (about $2,000 a year per employee) could be enough for you to give it a shot at your company.

However, this employee-favored perk could pose a threat to culture and collaborative efforts. IBM, Yahoo, Aetna and Best Buy all decided to stop, or reduce, their telecommuting policies. The consensus for the change? The need for collaborative energy between employees. Balancing productivity gains and the cultural impact of telecommuting is key to maneuvering through a competitive labor market.