Remote Workforce

The Tough Tradeoffs We Make Deciding to Work From Home or Not

The Tough Tradeoffs We Make Deciding to Work From Home or Not
Image credit: Bruce Stokes | Flickr
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Just a generation ago, probably the only white collar employees who could work from outside the office were salesmen who traveled as a part of their job. Today, that scenario has turned around on its head.

A rapidly growing number of businesses are discovering the convenience and overall efficiencies in remote working. Technology has contributed to this trend with ever more team collaboration apps like Nutcache and Asana, video calling apps like Skype and FaceTime, cloud storage options like Box and Google Drive, and so many more.

According to the State of the American Workplace Survey by Gallup, nearly 40 percent off all companies allow their employees to work from home. Remote employees work longer hours and are more engaged than employees who commute to work.

Related: Loss of Snow Days May Create the Next Generation of Remote Workers

The experiment.

Professor Nicholas Bloom from the Department of Economics at Stanford University, with his graduate student James Liang, conducted an interesting experiment at Chinese travel website Ctrip’s call center. Employees could choose to work from home for a period of nine months. The results of the study were surprising, to say the least.

Contrary to expectation, employees working from home handled 13.5 percent more calls than those who chose to stay in the office. This increase in productivity was attributed to fewer disturbances and a peaceful work environment at home, as compared to a noisy call center. Remote workers saved time and energy by avoiding the long morning commute to the office. This meant that they started work earlier and worked longer hours. The absence of other employees meant that remote workers did not waste time on trips to the water cooler, and worked till the end of the work day, all contributing to an uptick in their productivity.

The experiment also saw attrition rates among the home workers dropping to half, sick leaves dropping significantly lower and job satisfaction soaring much higher than the office-going control group.

An important point to note here is that this study was carried out among call center employees whose jobs are routine and do not involve much interaction with team members. While the overall positives of remote working are expected to remain even in the case of creative roles, there could be variances in performance on a case to case basis.

Related: Workers Without Borders: Managing the Remote Revolution

Success stories.

Companies in the healthcare, customer service, sales and IT sectors happen to be the most open to remote working positions for their employees.

Cisco Systems grew richer by $195 million thanks to productivity gains from its telecommuting policy in one year alone. Health insurance giant Aetna, 47 percent of whose employees work remotely, reports cost savings of $78 million per year. These savings were a direct result of cutting 2.7 million square feet of office real estate, housekeeping, utilities and related overheads.

The company also did its bit for the environment. With 65 million fewer miles driven to and from work, Aetna’s remote employees save over two-million gallons of gas per year. Remote working also means that their contribution to greenhouse emissions goes down by 23,000 metric tons every year.

So let’s get this straight, not being at work actually makes people want to work more. It also makes them more involved in what they do. It saves companies millions of dollars in real estate and infrastructure costs. It is easier on the environment. It even contributes to a higher level of life satisfaction, lower stress levels and greater happiness among remote workers, compared to office workers.

Why are we still sitting in office? Because working from home may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Related: Why This Startup Won't Let the Team Work From Home

Cautionary signs.

Remote working may seem like the way to go with all that statistical as well as experimental data backing it up. However, it does have some shortcomings which may make it more of a problem than a one-stop solution.

Remote working is apparently bad for career growth. In the CTrip study, promotions for home-based workers dropped by 50 percent owing to the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon.

The workplace offers certain unique benefits that no amount of remote working can replicate. The sense of camaraderie with your teammates, the warmth of social interactions and the unexpected flashes of genius that are inspired by random encounters at the workplace all vanish when it comes to working from home.

Many individuals thrive on stimulation from social settings. With such individuals, a work from home setup may actually backfire and result in depression and a drop in productivity. As Marissa Mayer of Yahoo puts, it, “People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

Unless adequate efforts are taken by the company to integrate them, remote employees also miss out on a feeling of solidarity with the company. They remain untouched by company culture and have a hard time getting informal feedback from their supervisors and teammates.

Data and experience both point towards the same thing. Remote working is a great alternative to working from the office, but with caveats.

Carefully choose the roles that can work remotely. Keep in mind the degree of dependence on team members, the levels of supervision required and the infrastructure needed to fulfill the job functions optimally. More importantly, pick the right employees for remote working. A self-motivated and capable employee who needs minimal direction wins hands down in the remote working stakes.

Related: 5 Ways to Ensure Remote Employees Feel Part of the Team