The promise and peril of working from home

Is working from home really the business godsend it's made out to be?

Telecommuting has been all the rage at businesses big and small in recent years. Many workers love the flexibility and freedom of working from home. And many businesses love the ability to woo great talent that appreciates the flexibility while also saving on infrastructure costs.

But of course, it's not all rainbows and sunshine. There are real downsides to working remotely, too.

Already, 50 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework. Additionally, between 80 and 90 percent of workers say they would like the option to work remotely at least part-time. According to the data, two to three days a week seems to be the sweet spot that allows for a balance of concentrative work (at home) and collaborative work (at the office).

There are many benefits for a company that employees remote or telecommuting employees. According to Global Workplace Analytics, it can reduce company overhead if there are fewer employees in the office (think real estate and office equipment, for starters). This data also shows an increase in productivity among those working from home, and that remote workers actually put in more hours for their company, says Maura Thomas, a speaker, trainer, business owner, and author of Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls.

From a hiring standpoint, Thomas points out that when organizations are unconstrained by geographic location, they can expand the pool from which talent is drawn. This ability to hire workers who live anywhere is appealing to many business owners.

Marc Prosser, cofounder of FitSmallBusiness.com, says having a remote staff has definitely helped his small business save money. "A remote staff allows us to access a much larger labor pool and allows us to hire remote workers such as stay-at-home parents."

From an employee standpoint, Thomas says remote work decreases an employee's expenses, which means they have more income without receiving a raise. Their commuting expenses, such as gas and auto maintenance, go down, and the amount of money they need to spend on "work clothes" also decreases. And of course, there is the time you get back in your day when you don't have to commute, which can lead to a better work-life balance.

Valarie Hamm Carlson, vice president of marketing at Simple.com, says that many of her company's local employees choose to occasionally work remotely even though the office is nearby. "That flexibility helps some people really buckle down and focus in the space they need at that moment, whether it's in a quiet basement office or a noisy coffee shop."

But remote work isn't perfect. Obviously, there are some drawbacks.

Thomas says transitioning to working in and managing a telecommuting environment isn't always smooth, and some of the problems have to do with the perspective of the managers.

"To effectively manage remote workers, supervisors must believe — unless they have evidence to the contrary — that people are working even if they are not in the office," Thomas explains. She believes that supervisors need tools and training to efficiently track work done remotely and to avoid micromanaging telecommuting employees.

She also says leadership should consider whether the company has invested in purchasing the technology infrastructure to support telecommuting, crafting a use policy, and training employees. This type of infrastructure includes video calls, VPN, company bulletin boards and wikis, online collaborative tools, Slack, social media platforms, and so on.

Hamm says in her business, they've found that it's still a bit of a challenge to do a brainstorm meeting or a whiteboard session in a way that fully engages the remote employees.

So, in order to address that concern, they have everyone together at their home base at least a couple of times a year, which helps them stay connected to each other. This allows them to bring all remote workers in at least twice a year for "hackathons," team development activities, and big company meetings.

"While we have tools like Slack that help us have more casual conversations online, it's hard to replace the impromptu hallway chats that happen when you share space," Hamm explains.

That's why coming up with ways to engage all employees, whether they're in the office or at home, is key to making remote positions work.

Prosser says they spend a lot of time and energy fostering connections in order to combat some of the downsides of remote work. They use video chats to have a once-a-week company-wide meeting. Most remote staff have at least a couple of video meetings each day with their coworkers. He also stresses the importance of fostering a fun environment (even if it is via video chat) since everyone is not in the office to build that rapport.


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