I've been talking more and more in this space recently about the continuing shift away from full-time jobs in the American workforce. With the increasing need for more flexible hours, faster internet connections, and online services that make freelancing more viable, Americans have the option to work from home more than ever before. Surveys show that allowing telecommuting is one of the fastest growing benefits companies offer to employees.
But is it right for your business? As a longtime telecommuter myself, I agree there are many benefits to the practice. I have also noticed however that it’s not all its cracked up to be sometimes. Here are some of the pros and cons to letting employees work from home.
Pro: It improves morale.
Allowing employees to work from home makes many employees happier. It removes some of their daily stresses, such as commuting, dealing with difficult coworkers and having to meet a certain dress code. People who work from home (or from anywhere that has WiFi) get their tasks done on their own terms in a space they control and that autonomy has a big effect on people.
Along with improved morale often comes a boost in productivity. Happy employees are more productive employees. It's not complicated. Someone starting their day relaxed, having had a nice leisurely breakfast with their family is more likely to produce quality work than someone who just scrambled to get dressed, fought traffic and had a piece of toast and coffee in the car.
Even for those employees that don't want to telecommute, just the offer sends the message that the company values and trusts them to work without constant supervision.
Con: It decreases collaboration.
Businesses thrive on innovation and innovation is often born out of collaboration. The constant flow of ideas, with employees sharing their thoughts in formal and informal conversations, tends to launch the most innovative new products and methods.
The most successful business leaders already recognize this. Steve Jobs consciously designed the headquarters of Pixar to encourage random encounters between employees to spur collaboration. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had a similar idea when justifying her decision to not allow employees to work from home.
“People are more productive when they're alone,” she said, “but they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”
Pro: It lowers costs.
Another straightforward benefit: Employees working from home cost the company less than employees in the office. For a traditional employee the company has to provide space, equipment and a variety of perks (break room, water, decorations, etc.). A telecommuter provides all these things for themselves.
Plus, when an employee works from home, it reduces the temptation of the manager to micromanage or otherwise waste time instead of focusing on bigger picture issues. The company saves money by allowing the employee to mostly manage his or herself.
Con: It can be a security risk
Having employees work from home on a personal laptop or tablet increases the potential for the loss or theft of corporate data. Someone could accidentally lose their device or let a stranger catch them entering their password.
Moreover, telecommuting makes it more difficult to keep the company's systems and data on a private network. You have to be online, and that may significantly increase the potential vulnerability to either hacking or just severe weather cutting off your internet connection and shutting your company down.
Fears over security are probably somewhat overblown, as most personal devices now have fairly sophisticated security features to keep a thief from accessing their data. Still, it is an added risk.
Con: It can make employees more disengaged
Employees may respond very positively in the short run to being able to work from home, but in the longer term you risk losing their loyalty and passion. A strong corporate culture and mission are vital to the long-term success of a company, and it's hard for an employee to feel a connection to that culture if they're never actually physically around their fellow coworkers.
This can have an impact in terms of loyalty, effort and communication, but it also might bring up very practical issues. Employees might lose track of changes in company objectives and work on projects that are misaligned with larger goals. What started as a way to make people more productive could end up backfiring, with misdirected employees working on the wrong thing.
Creative scheduling helps many companies get over the negative aspects of telecommuting. It’s sometimes best to limit the amount of telecommuting that employees do. Many startup founders and business leaders have their employees ease into the week by letting them work from home every Monday. On that note, many employers let their people ease into the weekend by having them telecommute on Fridays. You can mix and match day parts by having workers come to the office in the morning and then head home after lunch to work the rest of the day at their home office.
Use telecommuting as just another tool to help increase employee happiness and productivity. Workers may need different combinations of environments to be more successful, so work with them on finding the right mix. The key thing is to stay open minded about how these methods can help, and be ready to make changes to policy when appropriate.