How effective is Telecommuting (Working From Home) as a work structure?

In a pandemic or national emergency, except for essential services and strategic industry sectors, most companies in many countries are locked down by their governments, and so most offices and shops have to be closed and human movements restricted.  As a consequence, telecommuting or commonly known as Remote-Working or Working From Home (WFH) becomes a forced choice.

Telecommuting – an Effective Work Method?

It would appear that the initial euphoria of saving office costs (by 2009, as reported IBM had about 40% of its workforce working from home and saved around US$100 million p.a.), exciting young knowledge workers to join the company from different geographical areas to work anywhere, and attracting young talents who value work-life integration had its limitations as well. 

Interestingly, IBM reversed its decades long work anywhere tradition in 2017 for reasons of promoting both collaboration and innovation. Without a doubt, there are attractive benefits for telecommuting as a work method both for the organization and employees but there are inherent limitations as IBM discovered, and eventually took an unpopular turn in 2017 so did some technology giants. So, is telecommuting an effective work method if it is not a forced decision?

As mentioned in the foregoing, two major limitations seem to be in collaboration and innovation as a consequence of a single denominator, lack of quality human interaction.  It is a basic understanding in social sciences that relationship and trust are best built over time through socialization from both formal and recreational activities.  Positive relationships often smoothen work collaboration process even though the degree to which collaboration is linked to relationship is influenced by cultures.   According to IBM’s findings, new ideas are often spawned out of informal casual conversations in person.  It was found that telecommuting and formal problem-solving meetings tend to inhibit ideation and the creation of out-of-the box solutions.

IBM’s longitudinal case study can offer deep insights into the subject of telecommuting as an organization work method.  The importance of face-to-face human interactions including informal socialization activities like casual chatting in the watering hole, exchanging pleasantries at the corridor, drinking in a café or doing physical exercises in the office gym etc. cannot be overemphasized.  Socialization in person has proven to be critical in building relationship, trust, increasing collaboration and generating innovative ideas. 

Apart from IBM, other technology giants like Apple, Google, Yahoo and Caesars have also discovered the importance of housing people in an office in person and not be overly reliant on telecommuting as a work method.  In fact, these organizations have all paid a price or cost in NOT adopting telecommuting as a company-wide work method.  This is because many young talents today value the freedom of working anywhere and anytime as well as work-life integration.  Despite this decision, these companies remain as the more sought-after employers because they have other very attractive value propositions like learning opportunities and employment benefits. 

It is a sombre thought to take away if one is seriously considering the implementation of a company-wide telecommute system for everybody.   Should young talents and parents value telecommute as a form of “benefit”, or for companies that find attracting talents difficult, perhaps, the way out might be to implement it for certain target groups or individuals rather than for everyone. 

In situations where telecommute is enforced as a work method, it might be helpful to consider the following non-exhaustive measures to ensure that remote-work is done effectively:

  • Implement tracking mechanisms rigorously – the 3 categories described later could offer some ideas for references.
  • Intentionally create virtual platforms or relatively risk-free forums where informal socialization can take place. Needless to say, any virtual methods are only a proximation of reality and they cannot be as effective as face-to-face interactions.  Most telecommuting meetings tend to be very task-oriented and structured, which limits the reading of non-verbal cues.  One possible way to minimize this is to do “emotional or feeling” check-in and check-out where the chairperson of the meeting goes round asking each person in turns to share how one feels. Wherever possible, encourage the use of video with on-site background to engender positive engagement.  Virtual meetings using picture or name only tend to undermine authenticity and emotional engagement with one another.  In fact, even with video, one often only see the head without being able to read one’s body language.

To limit a full telecommuting system, consider implementing a partial system in which for some days, everyone has to be present in the office so that there are sufficient opportunities to continue fostering collaborative relationships. 

3 Types of Performance Tracking for Productivity

Where full telecommuting is adopted or forced upon as a means of working, there are generally 3 types of performance tracking mechanisms that could make it productive:

  • Outcome based – This method focuses on the quantifiable or measurable results or outcomes (KPIs) to be achieved within an agreed duration, i.e. the What to accomplished, How, Where and When (except for the deadline) are at the discretion of the employees. Only a few milestone meetings are required during the agreed duration.  Examples:  Sale values closed; analysis reports generated or software programs completed.  
  • Activity-based – This method focuses on the critical planned activities to be executed within certain time frame be it in days, weeks or months. Examples:  Make 20 cold calls; present to 10 specified potential customers or conduct 50 survey interviews.
  • Process-based – This method focuses on the fulfilment of workflow process requirements and define the tasks to be performed. Examples:  Attend to customer or hotline enquiries from 9am to 3pm, approve or reject on-line submission of user application within 1 hour or verify data submitted within 2 hours of submission by the expected sources.

The clearer the performance tracking measurements, the more likely telecommuting can lead to productive outcomes and working relationships between the supervisor and the team members.  There could be a combination of the any of the 3 categories of performance tracking mechanisms mentioned above for an individual employee, i.e. a supervisor can set 2 outcome-based targets and 3 activity-based targets for an employee so that his or her work targets are more comprehensively covered.