Telecommuting - does it work?

Yahoo's move this week to rein in its telecommuters raises questions over whether the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

Working remotely has long been a sort of utopian vision of employment. And today, with computers and smartphones able to connect us, we can easily escape arduous commutes and cramped offices and get jobs done from the comfort of the couch or even the beach.

Yet the idea has not caught fire as many had thought it would since digital communication began to pervade life a decade and a half ago.

While statistics show that working from home is on the rise, it doesn't seem to match the pace of technological evolution. In the US, employees who worked remotely at least one day each week increased to 9.5 per cent in 2010, from 7 per cent in 1997, according to the latest figures available from the US Census Bureau.

This week, the ranks of remote workers got a little smaller, when tech giant Yahoo told its employees their telecommuting days are over, according to a leaked memo.

"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," said the memo.

"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

That any company in 2013, let alone one whose business is connecting people through the internet, would make such a decree, set off a debate on the wisdom and usefulness of such seemingly old-school thinking.

But at bottom, the real question seems to be: Considering the technological tools available to today's workers - instant messaging, email, Skype, Facetime, Hangouts - why is working from home still considered such an "alternative" solution?

Joseph Pastore, a professor at Pace University's Lubin School of Business in New York, says it's nearly impossible to supplant the basic unit of communication in an office setting: the efficacy of a simple conversation.


Working remotely "is not always going to work as effectively as you think," he says. "Most of life's experiences are human experiences. There's so much about what we do - to the extent that it's conversational and interactive."

It's what some term the "watercooler" phenomenon: The truly critical details of a job are the in-between moments where casual conversation spurs projects and initiatives that end up delivering real value for the business.

Another reason the workplace remains the workspace of choice is simple personal preference. Some people just work better around others. From a policy point of view, statistics seem to be on telecommuting's side. The 2012 National Study of Employers, a report backed by family and workers' rights advocacy groups, notes that some 63 per cent of companies allow - though not necessarily encourage - at least some employees to work a portion of their time remotely. That's up from 34 per cent in 2005.

But while an occasional day at home is fine, being in the office is usually more productive.

In our high-tech world, several macro-level factors come into play. IT managers handling sensitive data - health care, banking, law, government - may not want it transferred over public wi-fi networks. Some computing systems are accessible only from within a company's internal network.

The efficacy of working remotely is also job-dependent. Customer service agents spend almost all of their time on the phone and in front of a computer, rarely needing face-to-face interaction with other agents, making them ideal candidates for remote work. Freelance designers or coders can take the specifications and get most of their work done without setting foot in an office.

Even radiologists, for instance, can review films from the comfort of a home computer, without having to set foot in the hospital.

But until retail stores are fundamentally redesigned, the sales staff needs to be on the floor.

Pace's Pastore notes that all that really should matter for a business is whether managers can take an analytic approach to the difference in an employee's impact and output.

"When you're deciding if it's good or bad, you just have to look at the results," he says.

Increasing petrol prices and crowded highways may make commuting more painful, but in the end, most managers will default to the bottom line, he says.

"The mere fact you're saving a little money and time (by employees staying home) won't supplant the fact you're not getting the job done."