Note: As of the date of this posting, the number of telecommuters is increasing suddenly and dramatically due to efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s too soon to know whether these temporary measures will change the balance of onsite and remote workers on a permanent basis. It seems likely, however, that a successful remote working experience now will open the door to more demand for the ability to work from home after the health crisis is over.
With that in mind, we are presenting a series of 3 articles concerning telecommuting and the home office benefit. We hope the information and tips in this series will prove valuable to your company whether telecommuting is a short-term solution or part of your ongoing benefits package.
Before 2005, telecommuting—also known as remote working, mobile working, and working from home—was a rarity. In the fifteen years since, it has increased by 173%, including a 44% increase in the last 5 years alone.1 Today 5 million people telecommute at least half the time.2
Increasingly, the question isn’t whether to allow employees to work remotely, but rather how to make remote working “work” for both the company and employees. The key is understanding the psychology of remote working and its challenges. The American Psychological Association and others have looked into the subject and offer valuable insights.
Simply allowing telecommuting isn’t enough to ensure its success. According to psychologist Kristen Shockley, companies “also need to shift their culture and norms to support the new arrangement.”3 There are things to watch for and guard against. And to encourage.
In some cases, the biggest adjustment isn’t by the remote employee, but by his or her manager. Evaluating a remote employee can be a challenge for a traditional manager who depends on regular check-ins to gauge an employee’s engagement and effort. As Jeanne Wilson of the College of William & Mary notes, “In a remote situation, managers must rely more heavily on results. That’s a hard transition for a lot of people to make.”4
It’s important not to unintentionally exclude remote workers. Aetna, which has supported telecommuting for many years, has taken a proactive approach by collaborating with Cornell University psychologists over potential problems such as employee isolation.5 But there are basic best practices you can institute without outside consultants. Be sure to invite remote workers to team events and company-wide events. Since it’s more difficult for telecommuters to socialize with colleagues (a key to building a sense of team), some companies create dedicated virtual meeting places, where the talk can veer away from business towards sports, entertainment and other “water cooler” topics.
Remember that telecommuting employees sometimes have trouble creating a boundary between their work and home lives. Studies show that often they keep working when on-site employees have gone offline for the day. The result can be the exhaustion and burnout many companies try to prevent by offering remote working options in the first place. Be mindful of the long-term effects of unintentionally overworking these employees.6
Think about the composition and structure of your teams, and the frequency of remote work. Research shows that teams composed of members all situated in different locations tend to work together better than teams of mixed on-site and off-site members.7 Also, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that relationships among colleagues sometimes suffered if they worked remotely three or more days a week.8 Those findings notwithstanding, there are things you can do to build unity within your mixed onsite and offsite teams, even if you have employees working remote all week, every week. Look into strategies that use communication to build “perceived proximity,” a sense of closeness among team members.”9 Other suggestions include formalizing the “goals, roles, and communications methods” of a group with remote members, and having a shared leadership instead of the more traditional top-down structure.10
You might have to fine tune your company’s telecommuting practices and policies, but the effort will likely be worth it. According to Cornell University psychologist Bradford Bell, “the research has generally shown that for most outcomes, remote work leads to small but tangible benefits,” including greater employee satisfaction and performance levels that equal or slightly exceed those of on-site workers.11 Advantages of letting employees work from home include the ability to hire the best candidate even if that person is located in another city, state or region, and work-life balance improvements that make for more satisfied employees. For example, one study found that a company lost 50% fewer employees when it allowed them to work from home.12 Telecommuting can help you recruit and retain employees and stay competitive with other organizations.
Editor’s Note: TASC is here to support our customers and provide benefits to assist those in need of creating and maintaining a home office/remote workplace. Our tax-advantaged Home Office Account provides a convenient way for employers to quickly reimburse employees for their eligible home office expenses and help ease their financial burden.
1. “Latest Work-At-Home/Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics,” Global Workplace Analytics, March 202): https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics
3.“The future of remote work,” American Psychological Association, October 2019: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/10/cover-remote-work
12. “Why Working from Home Is a ‘Future-Looking Technology,’” Stanford Graduate School of Business, June 2017: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/why-working-home-future-looking-technology