Service of Telecommuting [II] & Teams, Old as the Hills

July 13th, 2017

Categories: Collaboration, Remote Office, Teams, Telecommuting, Work

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In spring 2013 I wrote “Service of Telecommuting” after Yahoo’s HR director, Jackie Reses, had sent a memo to all staff telling them that if they worked at home they had until June of that year to report, fulltime, to a desk at a Yahoo office. According to a recent article on bloomberg.com, “The Rise and Fall of Working from Home–The permanent telecommuter is going extinct,” the approach continues to unravel.

In the article, brought to my attention by CG who has contributed to this blog, Rebecca Greenfield reported that earlier this year IBM “told 2,000 U.S. workers they could no longer work from home and about the same number of employees that they had to commute into offices more often. Facing 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue, IBM hopes that bringing people back together will lead to faster, more productive, and more creative workers.”

The last straw

Small companies have also tried the concept and have rejected it. Greenfield described a PR agency whose staff didn’t act like the grownups the boss had expected them to be. Too many took advantage of the situation so he cancelled the option after less than a year. In addition to not answering the phone when home and being incommunicado for full days, “The last straw…was when someone refused to come in for a meeting because she had plans to go to the Hamptons,” the owner told Greenfield.

She wrote: “More than 60 percent of organizations surveyed by the Society of Human Resource Management this year said they allow some type of telecommuting, up from 20 percent in 1996. But telecommuting comes in many flavors, and 77 percent of organizations don’t let people work from home on a full-time basis. Most employers allow ad-hoc remote work for the person who needs to stay home for the plumber or wait for a package.”

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You might not remember who French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is [1808-1890], but you’ll remember the saying he penned: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” I am thinking of the big deal made these days about teams when in my experience they have existed all along.

Regardless, I’m not convinced that the increase of teams in the workplace that Greenfield noted has accelerated the demise of telecommuting. “At the same time, work has also become more team-based. Only 38 percent of companies are ‘functionally’ organized today with workers grouped together by job type, a 2016 Deloitte survey found. Most comprise collaborative groups that shift depending on the work.”

In my opinion, collaboration and face-to-face communication help any enterprise that consists of more than one person. People who prefer to work alone, at home, shouldn’t get jobs in a company. Obviously there are exceptions for temporary periods—sick family members and anticipated nasty travel glitches for example—but as a routine option, I think what telecommuting saves in real estate—space to house an employee–is lost in lackluster productivity. Do you agree? Do you think that IBM will find that its policy change will help turn around its period of sluggish performance and creativity?

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12 Responses to “Service of Telecommuting [II] & Teams, Old as the Hills”

  1. ASK Said:

    It’s been my experience, through conversations with other employees at one of my previous positions, that telecommuting is just another way of staying home to watch children, or contractors, or visit with relatives…all sorts of activities other than work. Most of the people who would “work from home” had other things they wanted to do. I occasionally included myself in that group.

    Oh, yes, emails were answered and phone calls were fielded, if necessary, but the impression was that little was done. And oftentimes, since paper files still exist, it meant more work for the person who was in the office and had to dig up information for someone who was “working at home.” Ultimately, a new V-P at the company did away with this, decreeing that if you weren’t in the office, you would be considered as taking a vacation day and would be charged accordingly. And if it was a freelance consultant who was working from home, there would be no pay.

    I have no clue as to whether IBM’s new policy will improve their bottom line. In big companies, with so many departments and so many layers of managers and employees, it is difficult to turn things around quickly unless there is a complete reorganization. And it takes a genius at the helm to figure out how to streamline operations for better results. There is also the necessary waiting time for such a restructuring to make its full impact felt.

    I’m also not sure that teams spark or encourage genuine creative thinking…too many naysayers and power plays at those weekly or daily “team” meetings…unless, of course, they are run by truly skilled managers, whom I think are in relatively short supply.

  2. Martha Takayama Said:

    I have done a lot of free lance work, particularly translating from home. There are enormous benefits related to telecommuting and working from home. But there are always interruptions, more distractions and potential for distraction or interruption in a home environment or out of office environment. Working like that can also seem isolated. Access to other opinions or assistance is not necessarily the same at home as in a shared work space. It certainly minimises the possibiity of exchange of ideas that might be productive for work. It seemed to shift the economics of real estate, transportation and child care, but never very clearly. Our culture most recently has been quite self-oriented. Perhaps the trend for working at a workplace may prove more practical and even effective or appealing

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    I would squirrel up at home to write a proposal away from office interruptions when proposals were long and detailed. I knew writers at Fortune who would hide in a hotel room until they gave birth to the first draft of a major story. This was in the day a team would take three months or more to research a story, traveling around the country for interviews etc. and it would have many arms the writer needed to get hold of. The process was much like writing a book. But for more standard jobs, working at home on a steady basis–unless that’s how a person works best–often sends a message to friends and family that they can break into the day any old time which they wouldn’t do as much in an office.

    Jack Welch ran GE with an iron fist. People either cottoned to his approach which was extremely tough, or not. I don’t know how long it took him to get that company to appear to run like a fine tuned engine, and I suspect you are right….for a behemoth like IBM it might take some time to see any difference. Just checked: The co. has 386,000++++ employees around the world. I don’t know how many are in the US but suspect that 4,000 mentioned in the article is a tiny percentage of the whole and where they work will probably have miniscule impact.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    The cost of commuting and childcare or eldercare belong to the employee and would not affect a corporation’s bottom line but the cost and maintenance of office space would. I suppose the employer who wants the best employees must pay enough to cover the costs of commuting, especially if the work pool doesn’t live nearby, as well as for child and elder care if those are concerns of the target employee.

    As for working outside the home, it is one of the key ways to meet people who become friends, the others being through church affiliation, neighborhood activities, clubs and kids–i.e. the parents of their friends. And managers and bosses only get to know their employees if they see–and hear– them in action.

  5. HB Said:

    This is one of those questions that managers are always asked and they are inevitably answered with the fad of the moment. In my day it was “management by objectives” and “six sigma.” Now it is “teams.”

    I think that there is no one right answer to the question. It all depends upon factors like who the workers are, how old, what sex, what nationality, what cultural background and so forth, as well as where they are and what they do. True, it helps for people who depend upon each other to know each other and good, open communication lines are a must, but there are many ways to accomplish this other than having one’s employees all work in the same room.

    I worked internationally and inevitably, regardless of whether I was junior or senior, the people on my “teams” worked on different continents and in different time zones and in different languages. Getting them to all work together could be a challenge. Ultimately, I found that the best way to get the job done, was to be relaxed about work rules and focus on results. It was far more important that they felt free to question and argue with me, than my knowing what time they came to the office every day, if at all.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    HB,

    Yours is an example that proves the rule. You had to trust your reports stationed in the middle of another continent! If they did their jobs well, you’d know about it and the opposite as well. No wonder you didn’t care what time of day they or any of the others under you showed up. The PR fellow in the example wasn’t as fortunate.

    Whatever management called how work was done at the mega PR firm I worked for was lost on me as I was the lowest on the executive totem pole when I started. We developed teams according to the project or client in question. Appropriate staff was pulled from various specialties to develop and implement strategies. We didn’t call these teams but that’s what they were.

  7. Judith B Schuster Said:

    I agree that working at home all the time is likely to be a problem, but working at home one day or two days a week shouldn’t be, as long as the employee is trustworthy. While I admit to working at home before my retirement occasionally was done to let in a service person, it also allowed me quiet time to write and edit. I found I could get far better writing/editing done at home where I wasn’t regularly interrupted than I ever could at the office. I didn’t work at home even one day a week, but I might have if it had been allowed. People need to respond to email and phone calls, but one day or two days a week at home shouldn’t be a problem. Working at home all the time obviously could lead to difficulties. Frankly I found that I did more socializing at the office than I ever did while working at home.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Judy,

    You hit on what’s key to part of the success of telecommuting: The employee must be trustworthy. If the person meets all deadlines and isn’t consistently the stroke in the system holding up projects, it shouldn’t matter what time they come and go as HB wrote.

    However, for those who are not allowed to leave their posts, such as assistants and receptionists, seeing others in a department stay home much of the time must lower morale. When I travelled a lot my assistant said he envied all the wonderful places I got to visit. He didn’t absorb the fact I could have been in New Jersey or Connecticut as I’d fly in, spend time in meetings usually in one hotel and fly out. There wasn’t time to visit and tour as there were deadlines for other clients to meet.

  9. Nancy Farrell Said:

    This kind of reminds me of the age-old debate between morning people and night owls (who is more productive–someone who gets into the office early but leaves by 5 or someone who comes in at 11 but stays until 7?) The answer is, it depends who you ask! What matters, though, is the capabilities of the individual. People can goof off in person too. Many of us are paid to do a job that cannot always get done in 8 hours per day. That might mean working past 5 or logging on remotely while on vacation or in the aftermath of a hurricane because our building was closed for 2 months. Or it might mean hopping on a conference call or coming into work on a holiday. We’re expected to produce tangible results. And frankly, in the age of travel budgets being cut, we do a lot of web exes remotely anyways. Of course, in person interaction is great but the days of 2 hour lunches with clients are over. I say this as a client. I don’t have time.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Nancy,

    In my first job after college one of my colleagues, also newly hired, couldn’t get to work on time. She bought extra alarms, she said, had friends and family call her but she simply couldn’t get up and in by 9. At the time I thought she was a goof-off, which maybe she was, but in retrospect, she may simply not have functioned in the morning. We hadn’t yet proved ourselves so while she may have finished all her work, eventually she was fired.

    But telecommuting isn’t designed for early or late birds–and I understand that you didn’t imply that it was.

    There are some, like you, who do what needs to be done when and where, regardless of day or time. And there are others who take pride in fleecing the system, getting a salary with the least amount of effort. These days, I suspect there are fewer of the latter types than before as so many companies are streamlined to the quick.

    With the exception of babysitting done as a teen, and a few jobs in college, I’ve not had a position where the work was completed at day’s end. Though at times I’d lament this and say I’d love such a job, I figured that even if I turned to something like housekeeping, I’d still be noodling this or that aspect of some tasks long after I’d left the premises.

    As for lunches, they usually gobble the shank of the day. Lunch days guarantee a late night to make up the time. There are industries such as advertising, beauty, finance, pharma in which they no doubt happen more often than in others as budgets permit the expenditure and people may still have assistants. But if statistics and media coverage are accurate, fewer people are doing it these days and restaurant bottom lines suffer as a result. I wrote about this in “Service of Out to Lunch,” http://blog.jmbyington.com/?p=16317

  11. CG Said:

    As others have noted here, there are many variables in this debate, so one solution doesn’t fit all. However, I agree that if you can’t trust your direct reports to work diligently at home, then you’ve hired the wrong people.

    Many years ago one of my middle managers asked me if she could work from home after she had her first child. Her commute was grueling, she had great skills, she was completely trustworthy and I didn’t want to lose her, so I agreed to implement her proposal. To my surprise, she also suggested maintaining a desk in our office and coming in one day every other week, just so the rest of the staff didn’t lose sight of the fact that she still worked with us as part of the team. I thought it was a great idea so we implemented it. Not surprisingly, everything worked out perfectly. But that was then and this is now…

    A recent NYTimes article reported on the growing number of millennial men who have chosen to live with their parents and play video games rather than get a job. To them I say GROW UP (and to their parents I say START PARENTING!). A lack of maturity in a segment of the millennial population may be contributing to the decline in telecommuting opportunities for them and others.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:

    CG,

    First, thank you for sending me the Bloomberg article. Your nose for what interests others is as sharp as ever.

    Your last comment about millennial men is apt as on Monday I plan to post a piece about a group that seems to buck the “let ma and pa take care of me while I play” trend. I’ve known parents who have had to kick junior out of the nest and it’s hard to do but in the long run, the best thing for junior and the parents. Friends have told me the results of others who coddled long after such support was appropriate and their 20-something offspring are too lazy or inept to be able to take a phone message for their parents.

    As for your example of the middle manager who met her deadlines and your approval of her work while staying in touch with her colleagues, good for you and for her! I suspect with the right people with great motivation and focus, such a plan might work today. It takes a special kind of person for sure and a patient and good baby who sleeps a lot!

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