Ever since Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, came out with her mandate regarding "returning to the office" (no more telecommuting) starting this summer, a huge debate has been restarted regarding the value of flexible work arrangements. As many have said, the timing seems odd since more and more firms have used telecommuting, and in fact, many of the companies rated among the best to work for by Fortune allow telecommuting for many of their employees. Telecommuting can take many forms, so what are some of the potential benefits and drawbacks of the practice?
The benefits of telecommuting
For the employer:
Cost savings on offices and parking.
Travel costs (both to and from work offices, from other sites or even from home).
Lower equipment costs (when employees work at home, many of them use their own computers, phones, faxes, paper, etc.).
Relocation costs (if you are hiring new employees, you might not need to pay to relocate them).
Retention of talented employees who are trying to juggle work, family and other obligations, or who might want to work in a different location.
For the employee:
Savings of time and money because they do not have to travel to and from work.
Savings in parking fees, gas and car maintenance.
Avoiding commuting stress.
More opportunities (you are no longer tied to one location).
Greater productivity (because of fewer interruptions and more total time to work).
More flexibility managing daily life.
Less exposure to people who come to work sick.
Savings from purchasing fewer work-related clothes, shoes, accessories, etc.
The downsides of telecommuting
For the employer:
Lack of oversight and the potential for employees to shirk duties.
Security concerns (not all jobs allow for sensitive work to be transferred to home computers).
Departmental morale might suffer, especially if some employees are allowed to telecommute and others are not allowed.
Loss of on-site brainstorming.
Need to provide appropriate technology to work at home.
For the employee:
Isolation. Some employees may no longer feel connected to others at work.
Loss of clear boundaries between work and home.
Accomplishments can be harder to showcase.
You may lack the discipline and drive to work on your own.
Potential loss of direction from the boss.
Given the pros and cons of telecommuting, what's a firm to do? First, recognize that not all firms or jobs are well suited to having telecommuting options (for example, elementary school teachers, factory workers or positions requiring security clearances). Also, it is important to understand your firm's industry and what your competitors are doing. If all of your top competitors allow employees to telecommute and you don't allow it, that could hurt your ability to hire talent.
Second, remember that it doesn't have to be "all or none." It's possible that some amount of telecommuting in a job (one or two days a week working at home) may still enable both employers and employees to experience some of the pros of telecommuting without all the cons. Some employers are clear about what days they need people in the office or what specific hours employees should be available for meetings and brainstorming sessions.
Third, give a realistic preview to employees who might be telecommuting so they can make sure they are suited to this type of work -- they need to be self-starters and self-disciplined. Not everyone will want to telecommute. I've coached many people who specifically state that "going to an office" is better suited to their personality.
Fourth, draft specific guidelines and policies for telecommuting in the workplace, and be sure there is a clear monitoring system.
Finally, train employees on how to document performance while working at home and train managers on how to oversee that performance. Make sure SMART (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, time-bound) goals are defined and a good performance measurement system is being used by the firm.
Marissa Mayer's directive for Yahoo reinvigorated the debate over telecommuting. This is a good time for companies to really think about what's best for both the firm (in terms of productivity and morale) and for today's employees who are trying to juggle more and more.
• Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.