Telecommuting Can Boost Productivity and Job Performance

Working from home reduces job turnover, stress and encourages life balance.

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Michael Boyer O'Leary is an assistant professor of management, Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

Companies should not require all employees to work on site all the time. While telecommuting is popular, it is not something that's run amok and–when well managed–it boosts productivity, commitment, work-life balance and retention.

Census data indicate that the rate of telecommuting has plateaued at about 17 percent of the U.S. workforce, with the average telecommuter working from home about one day per week. Only a small minority never go into an office. Parents, women and younger employees are no more likely to telecommute than others. Telecommuters log five to seven more hours per week than non-telecommuters, often working even when they're sick or on vacation.

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Dozens of studies analyzed by scholars at Penn State show that telecommuting actually boosts productivity, performance, job satisfaction and overall life satisfaction. It positively affects relationships with supervisors and reduces turnover, stress and work-family conflict. It does so largely by giving people increased control over their work.

Of course, achieving these gains requires that employees carefully manage the boundary between work and family. Research by Leslie Perlow, a professor at the Harvard Business School, shows how often we interrupt each other when we're in the office. Just as office workers need to manage interruptions, telecommuters need to manage the potential distractions caused by being near the family, fridge, laundry, etc.

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An experiment by scholars at Stanford University showed that people working full time from home are 13 percent more efficient but are promoted less. When the experiment ended and people could choose whether to continue teleworking, half returned to the office. They tended to be the employees who performed badly while working from home. The trial run followed by the opportunity to choose between telecommuting and office work increased the overall performance gains from 13 to 22 percent. This shows that telecommuting is not for everyone, but when people have the chance to choose, individuals and organizations both benefit.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently banned telecommuting because she believes it undermines collaboration. Research does show that telecommuting can negatively affect relationships with coworkers, especially for those who telecommute more than half-time. To mitigate this effect, telecommuters and their employers can schedule regular days in the office, as well as meaningful culture- and relationship-building events. Managing telecommuting effectively is better than banning it outright.

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Mayer should keep three caveats in mind. Unplanned communication with coworkers drops significantly when they're more than 100 feet apart. So communication between Yahoo! employees on the Sunnyvale campus who don't sit close together will require deliberate effort (just as it does when colleagues telecommute). Second, people respond more to losses than gains. If Yahoo! employees see the ban as a "loss," it may outweigh any gains and run afoul of the principle that "once a happy telecommuter, rarely a satisfied office worker." Finally, people benefit from face-to-face contact with colleagues for some tasks, but they also need uninterrupted time for other tasks.

Yahoo! executives would do well to give experienced employees the latitude to decide where they do their best work–combining time in the office with time at home. Hold them responsible for the product of their work, not the place where they do it.

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