Telecommuting must be viable to have a flexible workforce

March 15, 2013 

"It's not for everyone. Full-time telecommuting can be like falling off a cliff for some people. They need the social interaction of an office environment."

-- Jane Anderson

In the 12 years I have been writing this column, I cannot remember a time when I commented on the decision of an individual businessperson. However, I just have to say something about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's recent decision to eliminate all telecommuting.

Mayer said she saw no benefit in this type of working arrangement and she wanted each person to be present in the office every day. She felt the face-to-face interaction would generate greater innovation than if they were working remotely and that productivity and control would be better as well.

Around the time of Mayer's announcement, a new study came out showing that, on average, employees working remotely put in six more hours than their counterparts at the office. In light of these results, it seems there is no question about the value of telecommuting.

These two situations seem to be at odds. You might wonder if Mayer would have had a different opinion had she seen the results of this study?

When the head of Yahoo unilaterally eliminates telecommuting, it changes the culture of the organization and sends a burning message that she does not trust the staff to be effective.

Telecommuting does have its challenges and it is not suitable in all cases. Take, for example, a job where a significant amount of collaboration is required. Clearly, telecommuting would not be the best answer in this situation, but if you have staff

members who work independently, there is no reason they cannot work from home.

In limited doses, telecommuting works well and is also a great motivator for so many workers. I think good management is the key to getting the most out of this working arrangement. Staff wants to add value to the company and fulfill their boss's expectations. Bosses who really understand telecommuting can overcome most of the perceived problems. As the saying goes, you do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. If some element of the process does not work, change the process until it fits.

As businesses expand, the need to find workers with specific skills will be critical. If I was to look into my crystal ball, I think I would see this becoming more and more difficult in the future. Asking a family to pick up and move for a job is a tough barrier. I have seen so many occasions where an offer was turned down simply because the potential employee could not or would not move his or her family. A telecommuting arrangement could have been a simple and very satisfactory solution in some of these cases.

As the economy improves, dictating the terms of the working environment for new employees -- especially younger ones -- just will not work.

That is, when it becomes a seller's market for employees there will be even greater incentive to allow and encourage telecommuting.

Ron Shaffer said, "When gas hits $5 a gallon, when there's ultimate gridlock, everyone will look to telecommuting." Bottom line is telecommuting will become more and more prevalent going forward, and you need to prepare for this.

You can do this.

Jerry Osteryoung, the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship emeritus, can be reached at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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