Telecommuting and productivity: pros and cons of working from home

Telecommuting and productivity: pros and cons of working from home

Note: in this post I define telecommuting as a knowledge worker working from home part time (usually 1-2 days a week), with the rest of the time done at a company office. Full time work from home, as in freelancing, may be covered in a future post.

Telecommuting is always a hot subject. There are many opinions – some swear by it, others think it the work of the devil.

As an engineer, I prefer observable facts to opinions; and having deployed a successful telecommuting program in a global Fortune 500, I’ve done my part to collect such facts and make my observations. Here is what I learned:

A carefully designed, professionally applied telecommuting program can do wonders for your company in terms of productivity, quality of work, employee well-being and customer satisfaction.

Of these benefits, productivity is often overlooked: many think the big deal of telecommuting is the convenience of better Work/Life balance, and consider it a perk, a sacrifice the employer is making to help out the employee. Nothing could be farther from the truth: telecommuting, if applied correctly, enhances productivity – output per unit time – significantly. It helps employees’ well-being too, but it makes good money for the employer.

(Mind you, I said “a carefully designed, professionally applied telecommuting program”. Just sending people to work at home as they please is a recipe for failure; telecommuting in a group must be designed to ensure proper collaboration channels and sufficient face time. I discuss the attributes of such a program here.)

I remember the “Aha!” moment that caused me to lead Intel Corporation to adopt a telecommuting program back in the nineties. I was at a conference, and was talking to this guy from a large US company during a coffee break. He told me his manager had forced his team to telecommute once a week. I was surprised and asked him why a manager would FORCE this work mode on them, and he replied: “We asked him, and he said, I want you guys to WORK!”

That was when it hit me: the open space cube farm I was taking for granted may be aligned with my company’s values of modesty and egalitarianism, but one thing it wasn’t – it was not conducive to the concentration required for at least part of the tasks a knowledge worker is faced with. In fact, it made it very difficult to be productive at any sort of intellectual work. I traveled back home determined to do something about it…

So this is the number one productivity advantage of telecommuting: when one is at home one can disconnect from the hustle and bustle and constant interruptions of the office and increase focus; and research data clearly shows productivity losses of 20–40% (as measured by cumulative time to completion) when work is repeatedly interrupted. In fact, a lack of distractions also leads to lower error rates, higher quality, and better decisions (see here for the supporting research).

In fact, in one of the pilots we ran, I found that people at the office might say “This is an urgent task – let’s assign it to Joe, he’s working at home today so he’ll finish it faster”.
Of course, there’s a caveat: these days a home worker can easily succumb to interruptions right in the comfort of their home – all they need do is allow their computer and smartphone to interrupt them with beeps, alerts, and the self-induced distractions of checking social media. Thus, to benefit from the productivity gain the home worker must be able to really turn all those interrupters off; that done, they can work in peace. In fact, today, as opposed to the nineties, the ability to disconnect from incoming email and alerts is critical for telecommuters if they want to enjoy the productivity gain. This level of maturity should be examined before management allows an employee to telecommute.

Another way that telecommuting helps productivity is by reducing absenteeism. Consider: an office-bound employee that needs to attend to some personal chore – say, go to the dentist – would take the whole day off. But if the company is set up to allow telecommuting, that employee would take a couple of hours off and work from home the rest of the day. And yes, these days most knowledge workers can do that anyway, but if they’re seasoned telecommuters, and their group is set up to support this mode, they will be much more productive at it.

So make no mistake: if you do it right, Telecommuting and Productivity go hand in hand. If your company isn’t doing it already, you should give it thought!

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.