In little more than a month’s time, more than half of America’s workforce transitioned to working from home. According to an April Gallup poll, 62% of employed Americans say they’ve worked remotely as a result of the pandemic. Before the crisis, 80% of employees said they wanted to work from home at least some of the time.
Now that a large portion of those people are getting what they wished for and enjoying the benefits of telecommuting, going back to the old way of doing things may be a non-starter. Work-from-home thought leader Global Workplace Analytics predicts that by the end of 2021, we’ll see between 25 and 30% of the workforce doing their jobs from home multiple days a week. Some major companies have already announced plans to move to a mostly-remote workforce, like Twitter, which told employees this week that they’ll be allowed to work from home permanently.
So what are the implications of the shift for companies? Here, we’ll lay out the major pros and cons of telecommuting for employers and share some strategies for effectively managing a workforce that works primarily from home.
Pros of a Telecommuting Workforce
Less time spent commuting means more work/life balance
Time spent getting to and from work reached a peak in recent years, with the average American worker spending 27 minutes commuting in each direction—that’s about nine days every year in transit. Moving to a work-from-home model would allow workers to take back valuable hours of their life each week. This could add up to greater work-life balance, which has proven especially elusive during the pandemic.
Maintaining a strong work-life balance leads to healthier employees who miss fewer days of work, are more engaged, perform higher and are less likely to burn out than their overworked, overstressed peers.
The decreased need for physical space means lower overhead costs
Once considered essential, physical space is one of the biggest expenses for commercial enterprises. The average cost per square foot of office space ranges from $29 in Atlanta to $85 in New York. When you consider that the recommended allotment is around 100 to 150 square feet of space per employee, the price can quickly balloon the larger your organization grows.
One of the major benefits of telecommuting is a dramatic reduction in the amount of physical space you need and, as a result, the reduction of money spent on rent, furniture, equipment and office supplies.
More scheduling flexibility can lead to greater productivity
At first blush, you might assume that employees who work from home will get less done. In fact, though, research suggests the opposite is true.
A German study analyzed how employees’ schedules influenced the level of effort they put into their work. The results were surprising: in situations where management did not record hours at all and employees were allowed to set their own start and stop times, workers logged more than seven hours per week above and beyond what they were obligated to do.
We’re seeing these findings play out in real-time in the wake of the coronavirus; a whopping 65% of workers who have transitioned to working from home say their productivity has increased since they made the switch, while 77% say they’re finding new times to be productive outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday.
Cons of a Telecommuting Workforce
Less face-to-face time makes it tougher to create a strong culture
One of the biggest losses during the stay-at-home era has been the sense of connection between colleagues. 42% of workers who are now telecommuting say they miss the social aspect of going into the office.
Additionally, water-cooler chat isn’t just a frivolous part of the workday; it impacts the organization on a much larger scale. The relationships employees build with one another affect their attitudes about their employer and work in general—it’s a strong aspect of company culture, and it’s a challenge to mimic digitally.
Companies are finding innovative ways to incorporate a social element into their new telecommuting arrangements, like virtual coffee breaks and happy hours, which can cultivate team spirit and give employees a much-needed outlet to focus on other than work or their responsibilities at home.
The nuances of effective management change when you don’t see your employees every day
The lack of face-to-face contact also presents a new hurdle for managers, who must now communicate primarily by voice or written words rather than relying on useful nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal cues like posture, eye contact and proximity play an important role in professional relationships, helping to reinforce the verbal message that’s being delivered and convey emotional messages of confidence, enthusiasm and trust. For managers working to navigate pros and cons of telecommuting, this means clear and open communication becomes more important than ever.
Management consulting firm McKinsey has some excellent pointers in its guide to communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19. “Communicate clearly, simply, frequently,” the firm advises, and “choose candor over charisma…Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead more effectively.”
You lose the oversight you have when your employees are at arm’s length
Telecommuting is a micromanager’s worst nightmare. We’ve all read horror stories of bosses who are now requiring employees to maintain rigid, thrice-daily check-in schedules and getting overly personal with the level of information employees are asked to share about their activities.
A downside of telecommuting is that you inevitably lose the sense of ‘control’ you may have previously had over what your employees were doing and when. And yet, strong leaders recognize that micromanaging is harmful in that it takes away staffers’ agency over their own work and diminishes morale.
Navigate the new distance between you and your reports by implementing systems for tracking work and managing projects. There is an array of digital tools that are useful in this scenerio, such as Asana and Robohead for project management and Sococo for working collaboratively even when you’re physically far apart.
Maximize Your Chances for Success with a Telecommuting Workforce
Whether you’re telecommuting as a temporary solution or planning on making it a long-term switch, here are some tactics that can help you manage the transition effectively.
Set times where the team will still meet in person
Once it’s safe to do so where you live, it’s a great idea to establish regular times where team members will gather in-person to share ideas and work collaboratively so they can retain some of the benefits of face-to-face teamwork. Even if you no longer maintain a physical headquarters, this can be done at a co-working space or, depending on the size of your team, even at a coffee shop.
Set clear expectations
This is something we preach again and again when we talk about managing a team, and it’s even more essential when your team isn’t in the same place. Define and communicate expectations about logistics like the times when employees are expected to be available (and how much flexibility, if any, exists with these hours), the chain of command that should be used for managing workflows and approvals, and how frequently check-ins are expected.
During this unusual time, many of us are working at odd hours, working less than normal due to family responsibilities or working more than normal as a distraction. With so much disparity in how different employees are able to manage their time, it’s on you as an employer to make clear what’s required for the necessary work to get done.
Be fair about telecommuting policies
Some positions can be done remotely more easily than others. That’s simply the nature of a business that employs a diverse staff, and the more employees you have, the more true this is likely to be. Still, extending telecommuting options to some employees and not others can breed resentment. If that resentment starts to bleed over and affect employees’ performance, now you’ve created a whole new problem.
You can stem negative results by being clear upfront about which positions can work from home and which will be expected to be onsite most of the time. If at all possible, offer even those employees who work onsite some level of flexibility, like a certain number of flex days per month.
In a great piece discussing fairness in workplace flexibility policies, the Harvard Business Review sums it up well: “If you have a work-from-home policy, it should be reason-neutral.” This means working from home to make childcare easier is viewed no differently than working from home because you’re sick or for no reason at all—ideally, a reason won’t even be part of the conversation.
Take Advantage of the Benefits of a Telecommuting Workforce
Making the switch to a fully or partially remote team? 4 Corner Resources can connect you with qualified candidates who have a successful track record of working offsite. We’ll source candidates who blend technical skills with characteristics like diligence, work ethic and strong communication to get the job done while working remotely. Contact us today to get started or find more resources for employers on our blog.