Is the Telecommuting Era Ending?

Tia Winter | 28 November 2017

When telecommuting was introduced in the late 1970s, it was touted as the tool that would revolutionise the workplace. Many predicted that it would lead to increased happiness and productivity among workers, and a lot of the corresponding data suggests this is so. Today there are more than 13 million people working from home, at least part-time, and for many it has proven to be the best solution to fit in with their lifestyles. Telecommuting opens a much larger cache of skilled potential employees, such as educated mothers with young children, up to companies.

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Recently, however, there seems to be a new trend in the workplace; a return to “co-location” or, in layman’s terms, to working in an office. The most notable example of the change in attitude is probably IBM; having led the charge for telecommuting, Big Blue announced in March this year that it would be making a return to conventional office spaces.

Over 2,600 marketing and IT procurement employees have been told that they need to live and work in one of 6 cities in the United States, or to look for work elsewhere, and while IBM acknowledges that the transition will be tough, company leaders feel it is essential. Having shrunk its footprint by over 78 million square feet and saving more than $100 million while also facing 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue, their desire to try something different is very understandable.

A review of the available research suggests that neither telecommuting nor co-locating is all good or all bad; the systems seem to work better for different people and situations. The key lesson here might be that all business environments are unique, and should be treated as such. There simply is no one-size-fits-all solution to any aspect of running an enterprise.

In Favour of Telecommuting

Telecommuting allows for a huge amount of flexibility, and genuinely means that people can work anywhere. Numerous studies have shown measurable benefits to telecommuting over co-locating such as what was seen in Ctrip, a Chinese travel website, in a study in 2013. Call centre staff were allowed to work from home for 9 months and completed 13% more calls, resigned about 50% less often and reported higher job satisfaction than an office-based control group.

The Ctrip results were so impressive that the company rolled out a telecommuting policy at every level. Satisfied telecommuters list not being tied down by pointless meetings, not feeling scrutinised for every tiny action and not sitting in traffic every day as some of the things they love about being able to work from anywhere. Employers say that it is easier to measure the productive output of a telecommuting worker than an office-based one, which can make various projects a lot more streamlined.

In Favour of Co-Locating

Even those who are strongly in favour of telecommuting admit that doing so successfully requires a huge amount of self-discipline. Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of telecommuting placement agency FlexJobs, says that she sticks to a set routine and sits down at her dedicated workspace between 8 am and 6 pm. If this is the case, why not simply go into work?

The psychological importance of physically associating with co-workers is also increasingly recognised, and it seems that socialising with real people turns out to be important to us in every sector. Consider for example live dealer games at mobile casinos; they combine the convenience of a mobile casino, so often necessary in the busy modern age, with the human interaction that we all need on some level. In the same way, perhaps a compromise between telecommuting and going in to work could be struck.

While distractions and commuting to work can be very challenging, so too can the dozens of emails often required to clarify simple projects. Many tasks that take just a few minutes when both parties are present, thanks to the ease of body language and being able to answer simple questions as they arise, can take several days to complete when all communication is electronic. In a bit of an ironic twist, the most productive email and other technological communications are between co-workers who are in close proximity to each other and who also speak face-to-face.

As the timeframes for research and deliverables become more immediate, several company divisions need to collaborate in a much more “waterfall”-like structure than the tiered, linear communications of the past. Marketing and IT are two departments where this is clearly seen, and IBM is hoping that its new co-location policy will foster this interaction. As the Apple campus illustrates, Steve Jobs was a huge fan of a more hybrid approach, and both the structured and incidental interactions that occurred in this environment have led to some of the brand’s greatest successes.

In the end, the important thing is to constantly evaluate what works for individual companies, and to adjust practices accordingly. The telecommuting era is perhaps not over, but it does need to be adapted and reimagined.

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