Home work

Advocates of working from home swear it improves productivity. Is this true? Read about the real-life examples and what experts have to say.

Imagine: you wake up at 7:30 a.m. instead of 5:30; you don’t have a two-hour commute ahead of you. You prepare coffee for yourself and breakfast for the kids at a leisurely pace instead of the hectic pace of the past. You drive the kids to school, then return home. Yes, return home. No, you’re not on holiday; you’re not retired; you are a "mobile worker," a modern manifestation of new approaches to work made easier by the cellphone, laptop and tablet revolution. You work mostly from home.

Mobile work is transforming where, when and how knowledge workers and others do their jobs. The latest IDC Canada report concludes that in 2014 mobile workers made up about 70% of employed Canadians, a slight increase from year-earlier figures. "Our mobile worker data refers to the physical location of the workers, not whether they are using a mobile device. We divide them into three mutually exclusive categories: office-based workers, nonoffice-based workers, and home-based workers," says Emily Taylor, the market research and intelligence firm’s senior analyst, mobile research.

The last category conjures up images of independent workers — freelancers, contractors and outsourced service providers — but now also comprises full-time employees, including call-centre attendants, proofreaders, medical record transcribers, insurance claims clerks, etc. Books catering to this demographic o”ften feature the tagline Working in Your Pyjamas.

However, telecommuter or workshift”er may be a more suitable term for well-educated, higher-paid knowledge workers who contribute from offsite locations, including their homes, cars, coffee shops or clients’ premises. "Workshift”ing is defined as working at an alternative work-site. In fact, a better definition might be moving work to people instead of people to work," says Robyn Bews, executive director of WORKshift Canada, an initiative launched in Calgary by the federal government to promote flexible work.

"This permits knowledge workers the freedom to do their jobs when and where they believe they can contribute most effectively," says Bews.

When managers consider offering work-at-home or work-outside-the-office options to their employees, they often start by establishing a sound business case for doing so. Measurable benefits and advantages must exist for both sides to offset the added cost and hassles of making the change. Since improving productivity is one of management’s top-of-mind goals, the question is, does working from home or elsewhere besides the office make employees more productive?

The answer is yes. Or rather that’s the conclusion of a working-from-home field experiment at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee, Shanghai-based online travel agency, conducted by Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom. Call-centre employees who volunteered were randomly assigned either to work from home or in the office for nine months.

The March 2013 report "Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment" noted that "home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift” (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter [and more convenient] working environment)." The firm improved total productivity by 20% to 30%, creating about US$2,000 in annual savings per employee working from home. Two-thirds of the gain came from reduced office space and the rest from improved employee performance and reduced turnover.

In a January 2014 Harvard Business Review article, "To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home," Bloom qualified the report’s findings.

"The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits, we think. More research needs to be done on creative work and teamwork, but the evidence still suggests that with most jobs, a good rule of thumb is to let employees have one to two days a week at home," he said. "It’s hugely beneficial to their well-being, helps you attract talent and lowers attrition."

Improved employee performance — for example, higher productivity for call-centre staff — is easily calculated thanks to the stopwatch-based system for measuring 19th-century factory worker efficiency developed by the father of scientific management, Frederick W. Taylor. However, that approach is less useful for evaluating contributions from knowledge workers.

According to Alison Konrad, Ivey Business School professor and coauthor of a 2013 case study of Telus’ telecommuting initiative, "Knowledge workers are required to adapt to unfolding work requirements, adjust creatively to dynamic situations and apply professional judgment. None of these processes are easy to assess in terms of quantity, quality or effectiveness."

And yet other academics, some casting a doubtful eye on corporate claims of munificent, self-reported  telecommuting benefits, concede that productivity levels of telecommuters and those of their office-based colleagues are more or less the same. In a research paper, "The Dark Side of Telecommuting — Is a Tipping Point Approaching?" Stephen Ruth, a professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, citing other academics’ research,  stated, "Telecommuting has a clear upside: small but favorable effects on perceived autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent and stress. Contrary to expectations in both academic and practitioner literatures, telecommuting also has no straightforward, damaging effects on the quality of workplace relationships or perceived career prospects."

If employee productivity based on location is a wash, what are the measurable advantages of introducing telecommuting? Reduced real estate costs leap to mind.

A 2014 study by commercial real estate giant CBRE Ltd. Found that, globally, workers spend less than half their workday (47%) working independently at their desks. The rest of their time is spent in meetings or working face-to-face, or virtually, with others.

As a result, many employers are busy right-sizing and modernizing their office space to reduce costs and meet the needs of millennial (born 1980 to 1996) workers. CBRE Canada says that last year, for the first time, there were more millennials in the Canadian workforce than either baby boomers or Gen Xers.

"The new, modern work environments are more expensive — 10% to 20% more than the ones they replace," says Ross Moore, director of research for CBRE Canada. "But the overall savings are about 15% since office layouts are shrinking in size."

According to a 2012 report by commercial real estate industry association CoreNet Global, by 2017 the estimated space per employee will be 151 sq. “ft., down from 225 sq. ft. in 2010. Since launching its Work Styles telecommuting initiative companywide in 2010, Telus has reduced its real estate footprint by more than one million square feet.

Other telecommuting benefits focus on improving the employee experience. A 2010 survey of Canadian finance and accounting CFOs found that flexible hours/telecommuting tied for first place (with subsidized education) as the top-ranked perk that firms in the industry planned to offer as an inducement to attract or retain staff. The Robert Half International survey found that 45% of CFOs surveyed planned to offer it the following year.

Telus is moving aggressively to achieve a target of converting 70% of its workforce into Work Styles telecommuters by the end of the year. It starts with providing employees with the proper technology and tools. "Since Telus is in the telecommunication business, it is easy for it to supply us with the latest cellphones and laptops. We can collaborate with others through secure links and share cloud-based files," says Ryan Bazely, Vancouver-based senior communications manager for social and media relations.

"We go through orientation and training. Also there is an intranet support website containing a shared pool of information, feedback, tips and insights from all employees working remotely."

Working from home, Bazely avoids office distractions when he needs to write or respond quickly to urgent a“fter-hours calls. There are other benefits, too. "For example, I can also wait for a renovator to come by in the middle of the day to measure my kitchen and then open my laptop at eight that night to finish up my work," he says.

Telus employees have embraced Work Styles enthusiastically. In a recent poll, it achieved a 95% employee satisfaction rating. In a 2014 Aon Hewitt employee engagement survey, Telus achieved a score of 85%. Engagement is defined as an employee’s involvement with, commitment to and satisfaction with work. Generally speaking, organizations with high employee engagement scores outperform those with lower scores.

As a bonus, Telus has found a new revenue-generating service since it plans to monetize its telecommuting expertise by helping clients launch their own systems. Since Telus’ ultimate Work Styles goal is to get 70% of its employees on board, it tacitly recognizes that telecommuting may not work for everyone. A number of jobs require face-to-face, all-hands-on-deck collaboration and cooperation. As well, some employees prefer working in an office.

To make telecommuting truly successful, organizations must strengthen the sense of trust between employer and employee. The former may fear problems of "shirking from home," while employees may worry that loss of "face time" will affect their relations with supervisors and could limit learning new skills that could advance their careers.

A "select-and-agree" approach may help remove the barriers and allay such fears. Speaking about research he coauthored, which was published in the journal Personnel Psychology, University of Illinois business professor Ravi Gajendran noted, "An employee not only has to ask for it [telecommuting], [he or she] also has to be approved for it, so that whole process makes  it seem special.

"And when an employee is allowed to telecommute, [he or she] feels a debt of gratitude to the organization. [If] it turns out that everyone is getting it, then it’s seen as less special and enthusiasm about it wanes. But if it’s a perk only given to a select group of people, the freedom and autonomy that comes with it becomes valued, and that’s more motivating, which drives up performance and thereby makes the employee a better organizational citizen."

For a number of years at Deloitte Canada, employees have been able to work remotely in cases of bad weather or for health or family reasons. But the company is now introducing updated guidelines to expand the option.

"First, we are laying out the rules of the road and establishing mutual expectations — it is not all one way," says Vancouver-based Jason Winkler, the firm’s managing partner, talent. "Second, we are providing employees with the proper tools. I am talking to you through my laptop — not a cellphone. We want to ensure that when our employees work remotely, they can do it in a safe, secure and protected manner to ensure that they can follow all of our security protocols."

Files stored on computers are encrypted so if laptops are lost or stolen, data can’t be accessed, he says. In his view, the belief that paper documents offer greater security than digital ones is just a myth.

"Third, we want to offer our employees more flexibility about when and where they work to help them maintain a better work/life balance. For example, during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we wanted to be sure all employees here could work remotely if traffic  congestion or other disruptions prevented them from reaching our downtown offices."

Deloitte’s telecommuting initiative brought Majella Gorospe back into its corporate fold. In 2013, the Toronto-based senior manager worked from home one day a week. The rest of the week she struggled with a three-hour total commute to and from the office.

"That was putting too much pressure on me, especially in the morning when I had to get the kids out of bed early. I felt I could not provide the quality work that the firm and I expected." So she found a job at a company 15 minutes away from her home.

"However, my director left— the door open for me to return if I changed my mind," she says. "A—fter three months, I decided to come back when the firm let me work three days a week from home." Gorospe is now part of a quasi-virtual team whose members work one, two or three days a week from home. But there are anchor days when they all make an effort to show up at the office. "That allows us to dialogue and solve problems together. Usually we go out for lunch to keep up with what everyone else is doing," she says. "These things may seem small, but they’re key to building and maintaining strong relationships."

She feels productive working at home because once the kids are off to school she has the quiet time to focus on analyzing problems and write reports without any distractions. "I also have the flexibility to take my kids to the doctor in the middle of the day and catch up with calls and other things later in the evening."

Deloitte’s bold plan to open office-of-the-future facilities across Canada is well on its way, with a new downtown Toronto office slated to open in early 2016. Although the initiative has already yielded real estate savings, Winkler doesn’t reveal any figures.

"We’re not measuring the value of expanding the reach of our remote working initiative in just dollars and cents," he says. "We want to use it to attract different types of people — women with young children and those from various cultures and backgrounds — to diversify our workforce. It is tough to measure the value of that. We also want to ensure that all our employees can make use of our flexible working options so they can work productively when and where they choose."

About the Author

Ken Mark


Ken Mark is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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