The Remote Work Advantage, or Why a Big Storm Wasn’t a Big Problem

Sometimes when we hear weather reports we tend to turn a blind eye or ear depending upon your medium.

This past weekend in the New York City area, we were warned of a big snow storm that was bearing down on the region. By all estimates, it was a giant one.

I thought of this when I read a press release earlier in the week titled Telecommuting Could Save Employees and Employers Time, Money, Grief. This release by outplacement consultants Challenger Gray & Christmas discussed the big question about whether the nation’s employers should consider making a serious commitment to expanding the use of telecommuting strategies.

Working during the storm

I worked from home that day last week, but I was also joined by my daughter who also worked from home that day. She chatted with me on her breaks from conference calls, and I did the same from my end. I told her that during my first jobs out of college this would have NEVER happened. She could not understand why; she said she felt more productive working from home.

I have always suspected that this reluctance to allow people to work from home was the result of industrial age thinking and leadership in a Digital Age environment. Today’s work environment is light years away from the workplace of even 10 years ago.

Having once worked for IBM, I did a two-year work from home project. This was basically unheard of during that time. When I told people of my work, they could never get over the fact that I did not have to “go in” to the office every day.

It’s not for everyone

What I found was that over time, I did not enjoy working from home. My reason was twofold.

One, there was no separation of work and home. Although I had a dedicated office, I found myself working on Saturdays, Sundays or whenever I wanted to. I could not turn it off. This was something found in the study that Challenger referenced.

Companies that have embraced telecommuting have found that their remote workers are just as, if not more, productive than traditional office workers. Analyses of Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical and many other employers have found that teleworkers are 35 percent to 45 percent more productive. American Express found that its teleworkers produced 43 percent more than their office-based counterparts.”

The other reason I didn’t like working at home was the lack of face-to-face contact with people. I needed it, because the interaction of colleagues was what I missed most.

From time to time however, I enjoy the option of working from home — just not everyday.

Productivity: office vs. home

Were my office-bound mates more productive than me?

Just because you see someone in the office does not mean that are productive. This is one of management’s major concerns about people working from home.

How can I be sure that they are actually working? But, if being in the office was the key to productivity, everyone would be a superstar. Geography does not denote high performance.

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People that are good, productive workers will exhibit that trait no matter where they work. It all comes down to the big “T” — trust. Don’t let your yardstick be based on the imaginary worker in your mind, or for that matter, on the one that you found who was not pulling their weight.

If certain people slack off and take advantage of the situation, believe me, you’ll know it. But don’t punish the others who work hard and responsibly, even if it’s from the comfort of their own couch.

Real estate cost savings

Add to this the reduced cost of real estate. According to a 2008 Workforce Management article, a Sun Microsystems spokesperson said the company had realized “huge cost savings” as a result of 18,000 workers participating in its telecommuting initiatives. According to the article, the San Francisco-based technology company saved $67.8 million in real estate costs in fiscal 2006 alone.

This is the conundrum in talking to senior leadership about this growing phenomenon. If they have the mindset that everyone would just be goofing off working from home, they are sadly mistaken. The new breed of worker is expecting this type of opportunity if their job duties allow it.

The 21st century  worker will expect certain things from an employer. The pendulum has swung in their favor and it is not going back. On top of that, employers have to compete with other enlightened organizations that may offer this opportunity to their workforce.

Not doing so “is simply a lack of vision, a shortage of trust and an irrational adherence to antiquated notions of how and where work should be done,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

So the next time a major storm is coming your way, use it as an opportunity to give your employees the opportunity to work from home. Let them know this ahead of time so they can prepare for it. Come out of the dark ages and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Oh and by the way, I finished my day at 6 and my daughter was done around 7. We both did not skip a beat.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.