Does Working from Home Work for Corporate America?

It depends. Here, Robin Weckesser explores the pros and cons.

Image via Death to Stock.

In the Bay Area and beyond, organizations continue to transform their workplaces, and debates continue about the benefits of open floor plans and virtual offices. Globally, a new generation of workers, enabled by technology tools, is fueling the trend of employees setting up shop at home or at other remote locations.

Is working at home right for your workplace? That depends on many variables, including location, commute alternatives, workforce demographics, and job functions. While every workplace is unique and every culture is unique, it may be helpful to look at some of the data. In this article, Robin Weckesser, president of a3 Workplace Strategies, explores the pros and cons.

What research tells us

According to the Telework Research Network, the number of mobile workers grew 66 percent from 2005 to 2010, and that trend continues.

Recently, researchers from Stanford University conducted a study of 255 employees in a large travel agency. Half of the employees worked from home for nine months, while the other half served as a control group and worked from the office. While the performance of those in the office remained stable, the performance of the work-from-home group increased by 13 percent, as measured by their sales and customer interactions. The researchers cited less noise distraction, fewer breaks, and fewer sick days as reasons for the boosts in productivity. After the test period, when employees could choose to continue working from home or to return to the office, they found that roughly half the work-from-homers returned to the office, with three-quarters of the group who remained in the office deciding to stay there — and typically, it was the highest-performing employees who chose to work from home.

Another way working from home may improve employee productivity and satisfaction is by improving sleep quality and quantity, according to a study recently published in Sleep Health. Research conducted on nearly 500 workers found that employees with a more flexible work schedule are less sleep-deficient than those with less control over their time.

Previous research has supported related findings. A 2007 meta-analysis of 46 studies found that working remotely improved productivity by objective measures and supervisor evaluations. Remote work was also found to reduce stress and increase job satisfaction, but on the negative side, was correlated with a lower quality of relationships with co-workers.

Again, many factors come into play and may affect survey results. For instance, a 2014 University of Calgary study found that personality is tied to work productivity. Workers who were honest, conscientious, and satisfied with their jobs were productive at home, while workers who procrastinated were less productive at home.

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The need for flexibility

Regardless of the percentage of virtual workers, it is important that those workers return to their corporate homes at least occasionally. For that reason, companies should invest in ways to make the workplace more of a home away from home. The optimal environment should support the corporate culture and facilitate interactions that are vital to the health of the organization.

Companies should avoid cookie-cutter approaches to the workplace. They should seek customized workplace solutions to meet their unique needs.

As with open offices, it’s a question of balance:

  • Virtually yes. It’s impossible to ignore the potential benefits of remote offices. First, a reduced office footprint results in significant reductions in the cost of real estate. Second, remote offices accommodate the legitimate needs of workers to spend more time at home. Third, as globalization continues, this begs the need for more flexible work arrangements. Fourth, in addressing the productivity part of the equation, we should continue to review industry studies.
  • Virtually no. The challenges presented by virtual offices need careful attention. These include management and reporting issues, communication gaps, the chance to become disconnected, and the blurring of lines between work and play. At the end of the day, people need to interact to develop meaningful connections; they need to see body language and hear inflections. They need to be part of a team and a process. And when they regroup with their colleagues, the office they return to must be engaging, sustainable, and fun.

In a progressive work environment, collaboration and teamwork will thrive. But this type of workplace — and the culture it fosters — doesn’t just happen. It needs to be carefully planned and implemented so that mobile workers and 9-to-5ers will actually want to come to work.

Image via Death to Stock.

A vision and a strategy

Before companies decide on their virtual office policy — including the level of their mobility program — they should consider several key variables:

  • What is the goal of your workplace program? Is it to more effectively manage real estate costs by reducing space? Is it to recruit and retain top talent? Promote collaboration? Or all the above? (As companies continue to scrutinize the bottom line, we can’t forget that real estate is still the second largest corporate expense, after labor.)
  • What are the demographics of your organization in terms of millennials, stay-at-home parents, retirees, and the multi-cultural breakdown? (As the baby boomer generation yields to new demographics, the workplace paradigm must adjust.)
  • What percentage of your workforce is best-suited to work out of the office? Are you growing your sales force and service field offices, or are you a headquarters or back-office operation? (In the former case, you can push for more seat sharing and consider a mobile workforce of approximately 75 percent; in the later example, more staff needs to be in-house, but you can still reduce seat requirements by up to 30 percent.)
  • What technological tools will you provide to remote workers? (To promote communication, laptops, cloud solution services, and video conferencing are important ways to keep employees connected.)
  • What are you planning to do regarding managers who fear they will lose control and accountability with less direct staff contact? Is training in place to help managers support and stay connected with remote staff? (Here, change management programs are critical.)

So, how can you determine what program will work best? Due diligence is required before you can begin to answer that question, and it makes sense to benchmark what other companies have done to optimize their workplace. You may find some organizations that have a 100 percent virtual workforce and others that are 100 percent in-house, but it’s more likely that the numbers won’t be so extreme.

While workplace optimization isn’t a new concept, it is an evolving process, one in which overnight results are not realistic. So, be deliberate. Look at your business and your culture. Review your strategic plan and see how real estate and project management decisions can work for you.

I’ll leave you with the five best and worst things, as I see it, about the virtual office:

The five best things about the virtual office

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  1. You can work in your pajamas

Not adhering to a dress code is a huge plus. Aside from the comfort factor, not having to try on outfits, shave, curl, and primp saves you a good five hours every week. Cut out the commute, and you’ve earned a full extra workday of time.

  1. You avoid the drop-by

In an office, it’s hard to avoid the impromptu visit from your boss, the CEO, or the co-worker who wants to give you a play-by-play of his kid’s soccer practice. At home, you can avoid this. Sure, you may get the phone call version — but if you’re too busy or not prepared, you can ignore it and call back later.

  1. You’ll never miss a FedEx package again

Not being tied to an office from 9 to 5 opens up an entirely new world when it comes to life maintenance tasks. Like being home to receive deliveries. Or going to the grocery store at 3 p.m. and not having to enter a fist fight over the last jug of non-fat milk.

  1. You can multitask in meetings

Calling into a meeting rather than being there in person doesn’t excuse you from participating; in fact, it’s even more important that you speak up. But there are meetings that veer off track or that only require your presence for a few minutes. And those are the times that working from home means that you can actually work instead of being tied up in meetings.

  1. You can be loud and crazy

Are you at your most creative with Metallica blaring? Love doing yoga to think through a difficult situation? At home, you can sit on your Pilates ball, pace, or indulge in other crazy habits without your co-workers getting annoyed or thinking you’re insane.

The five worst things about the virtual office

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  1. You’ll miss the water cooler

Working from home can be lonely. Sure, you can Skype, call, or IM, but that can’t replace grabbing lunch with pals. Moreover, being out of the office means that you miss all the elevator gossip, impromptu meetings in the hallway, and staying up on office happenings.

  1. You never really leave the office

You know that good feeling you get when you leave the office building? That you’ve accomplished all you can and that everything and everyone else can wait until tomorrow? Forget about it. Since there’s really no difference between being in the office and being at home, the boundaries your clients, co-workers, and boss normally draw (like not calling at 9 Friday night) are not extended anymore. You’re always on the job. Work, and all its piles, is always there.

  1. You never really leave the house

For all of the benefits of not having to go in to the office every day, there’s also a major downside: you can turn into a hermit. Twelve-hour periods can go by when you don’t see the light of day or actually speak to another person. Please, for your sake — and the sake of your spouse, partner, or roommate who may actually want to be alone — go to Starbucks once in a while.

  1. You can’t count on the IT department

In an office, the minute the internet goes down or your computer gets a virus, you call the help desk, and it’s someone else’s problem. At home, it’s all you. Which means that you can waste several hours at a time waiting for the cable guy or trying to explain your laptop’s problems to customer service. Yes, you’re the boss, but you’re also the IT guy, the courier, and the admin.

  1. You need self-motivation

In an office, you might be tempted to update your Facebook or browse sales online, but being at home adds looming chores, Xbox, and your comfy bed to the list of appealing taboos. And without the threat of your boss walking down the hallway, it can take a lot of discipline to stay focused. Just because you can work from bed or take a couple of hours off here and there doesn’t mean you should. You need to draw boundaries.

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