The Impact of Telecommuting on Employee Performance

by Matt Klassen on March 5, 2013

Yahoo needs to communicate and collaborate, according to a memo from CEO Marissa Mayer sent to employees late last month, and to do so the company needs unity; or to put it another way, physical proximity. It was that line of reasoning that led Mayer to decree that all existing work-from-home arrangements will be terminated come June, and all employees will actually need to show up for work on a daily basis.

It was a decision that came with no shortage of derision and condemnation from both inside and outside the company, with some employees complaining that they were hired with the understanding that flexibility would exist in their work locales, while others, like Virgin CEO Richard Branson (a man who has never worked a day in the office in his entire life) blasted the decision, calling it “a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.”

That said, research has shown that perhaps telecommuting isn’t ideal for every industry, particularly where the exchange of ideas is paramount to success. So I ask, in this age of telecommuting, where teleconferencing and remote workers are quickly becoming the ubiquitous norm, is Yahoo’s decision to ban remote working a step forward towards a bright future of increased productivity, or a step backwards into the dark ages where the office desk was a veritable ball-and-chain?

For proponents like Branson, there’s no question that there are plenty of benefits to telecommuting, including reduced stress, increased productivity, and decreased job turnover. With that in mind, however, much of the academic research on remote working demonstrates that working from home may be beneficial, but tends to work best in small doses.

“There’s a lot of data on this,” said Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at the MIT’s Media Lab and president and CEO, Sociometric Solutions, a consulting firm. “If you are telecommuting once a week, it’s basically the same as working face to face all the time.” If you telecommute more than though, however, studies show that performance can dip, particularly in industries where collaboration is vital.

As CNET writer Jay Greene points out, “MIT collaborated on a study with IBM and found that software engineers who worked remotely were more likely to develop programs with fewer dependencies on software code created by colleagues. That, in turn, extended the development cycle by 32 percent for those software projects.”

Simply put, while extended telecommuting may work fine for sales representatives and the like, in the technology industry it tends to promote a lone wolf mentality, which in turn decreases production.

So perhaps Yahoo’s Mayer is on to something here, seeing the undeniable benefits of the increased exchange of ideas, or perhaps she’s listening to research that’s grossly outdated. As proponents of telecommuting are quick to point out, collaboration technology continues to advance exponentially, meaning that research that points to a drop in production may not be keeping pace with advancements in video conferencing, instant messaging, and enterprise social networks.

As is often the case, there is ample academic research to support either side, which often puts us at loggerheads. Is telecommuting really as effective as face-to-face collaboration? In my mind, while a balance needs to exist, Yahoo’s actions of late seem desperate and heavy-handed, more likely resulting in morose and angry employees rather than the cool and collaborative work environment Mayer envisioned.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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