Ellen Linnemann, the director of public relations at Smart Marketing Communications, would see her youngest daughter off to school and answer all of her emails before most people even got to the office. Working from home full-time, she’d break to eat lunch or to drive her kids around. She has worked from home since her eldest daughter, now 22, was born.
“I learned to work around nap schedules and playdate schedules,” she said. Sometimes, she worked past their bedtime, productive in the moments of quiet. Now, she works from home because she likes the flexibility and quiet environment it offers – not because she has to for the kids.
Victoria Tringone, the marketing director at Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, headquartered in Ronkonkoma, knows that when she works from home twice a week she can first see her small children off to school. She plans her week around when she works from home, scheduling tasks that require more quiet and focus for those days.
This summer, with some companies planning to allow more employees to work from home to avoid messy LIRR commutes during extensive track work, Linnemann and Tringone will be in good company. But companies new to telecommuting will need a strategy to meet their goals, experts say. Feedback from managers, communication and productivity all come into play.
The number of employees who only work remotely jumped from 15 percent to 20 percent in the past four years. Yet, people who work from home exclusively are the least engaged with the company – and therefore more likely to seek other employment, according to a recent Gallup report.
The study contrasts the commonly held thought that working from home allows more flexibility and greater work-life balance, therefore boosting morale and engagement.
“I have never seen evidence that [employees who work from home] are more productive,” said Bruce Hall, president and chief marketing officer of Eureka! Inventing, a consulting and research firm with offices in New York and serving Fortune 500 companies. “I think that’s more anecdotal; it may or may not be true.
“There is a lot of evidence that says employees are also happy when they’re in a very challenging environment, where they have to grow, to evolve,” he added. “They have difficult tasks and a support system to help them,” whereas with a more laid-back telecommute, employees may struggle to grow and stay challenged, a reason why some seek to leave a company.
Businesses thrive, Hall said, when there is alignment, with everyone working together toward the company’s mission. That can get lost when workers are geographically scattered, instead of working in close proximity.
“Companies were built by people side-by-side struggling, working and learning elbow-to-elbow, not built having people separated across landscape and geography,” he said.
Largely, however, the success of telecommuting seems to lie in the details.
The most engaged remote workers are those who work somewhere between 60 to 80 percent (three to four days a week) of the time from home, according to Gallup.
Telecommuters who work remotely 60 to 80 percent of the time say they receive meaningful feedback about taking steps to reach their goals. Meanwhile, people who work full-time from home say they are less likely to get that kind of feedback, according to the report.
“There’s a balance certainly,” Hall said, adding that working one or two days a week remotely is okay “as long as you spend a number of days per week side-by-side in the same room. That’s critically important.”
This is why he agrees with IBM’s recent move to end full-time telecommuting. IBM is one of several companies, including Yahoo and Bank of America, that ended or reduced their employees’ capacity to work from home.
However, Karen Sobel Lojeski, an assistant professor in the department of technology and society at Stony Brook University, said companies should think twice about a no-telecommuting policy.
“The issue is not really about where you are – it’s part of the issue,” she said. But “the more important pieces are the psychological and emotional.”
Lojeski was referring to virtual distance, a quantitative measurement of distance created by three factors – physical distance, operational distance and affinity distance (the emotional disconnect between coworkers).
It is high virtual distance, both remotely and in offices, that plagues workforces today. When virtual distance is relatively high, innovative behaviors fall by over 90 percent and trust declines by over 80 percent, according to Lojeski’s research.
Lojeski sees telecommuting as a way to tap talent globally, and says virtual distance can exist when employees work side-to-side but aren’t communicating properly.
A quick fix to reducing virtual distance is to mix up modes of communication often, making use of video-chatting and phone calls, Lojeski said. Relying on email as a primary form of communication, though easy, can be detrimental long term.
“The world of work in every way has changed and we have to sort of rediscover those changes in this workplace transformation if we’re really going to get the most out of technology and each other,” she said.
She referenced the connectivity paradox – the more connected through technology people become the more isolated they begin to feel. She said it’s as if people are talking to themselves all day when they’re typing emails and there’s no response, and in that moment people are really just listening to their own minds.
Then, there is also the “bubble” that technology creates, where devices use algorithms to show things based on its user’s preferences, which doesn’t equate to encountering opinions that don’t agree with yours, she said.
Largely, she noted, success will come from people interacting with their colleagues – in an office, over the phone or through video-chat. Employers must understand the wants and goals of employees and vice versa. How people feel about each other, their work, their value and how they fit into an organization “have disappeared behind virtual curtains,” but when communication improves and coworkers begin to know these things about each other, “all of a sudden people are very engaged whether they work four days a week or one day a week,” Lojeski said.
Todd Mitchell, CEO of Todd Mitchell Associates, an executive recruiting firm for the property and casualty insurance industry in New Hyde Park, said five of his nine employees work from home either full- or part-time. He began this strategy to offer employees greater work-life balance.
Mitchell acknowledged that while telecommuting may not be right for every industry, there is no reason his employees must be in the same room, especially with a proper system in place. For Mitchell, this means semimonthly calls for open discussion, weekly individual dialogues, biweekly individual progress reports and administrative support.
Bridget O’Brien runs her business, Bridget O’Brien PR and Events, from her home while raising her children. She used to operate from an outside office, but since moved to be more available for her kids and to save money on renting space, which, she said, her clients never visited anyway.
Balance, she said, is key.
“It really is something hard to do – separation of home and business,” O’Brien said. “Business overtakes a lot of the home. It is difficult. The other day my husband cooked dinner and when he put the dinner on the table a client called me and it was an hour-and-a-half phone call. I didn’t get to have dinner until after everyone else ate.”
Hall acknowledged that while this irony – working from home to achieve work-life balance, but instead having them merge – may benefit employers by lengthening work hours, measures should be in place to benefit both the employee and employer.
“It’s healthy for a company to try to maintain a discipline – between the hours of 8 and 5 we expect you to work, etc.,” Hall said. But, he said, what’s needed is discipline. “What are the priorities of the business? Do you have metrics to show you have progress? Are you working within certain business hours? Do you have discipline, versus allowing it to become so laid-back and loose that it becomes sloppy and unpredictable?”
Even without the cost of renting an office space, O’Brien says she would likely continue working from home despite its challenges if she had to choose again.
“The choice for working from home is really a family decision,” she said. “I like to be there as much as possible, even if it means that I have to stay up all night or late into the night at off-business hours.”