A Minute With...

Ravi Gajendran, expert on flex-scheduling

3/4/2013  8:00 am

Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up. By banning employees from working from home, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sent a message that the simple act of showing up is now more important than the flexibility telecommuting affords its employees.

Ravi S. Gajendran is a professor of business administration who has studied and published research on flexible work arrangements. He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the benefits of telecommuting for both employers and employees.

You’ve studied telecommuting in the past, and your research found it to be mostly a win-win for workers and companies. Just how popular is telecommuting, and could you explain its benefits?

image of professor ravi gajendranAn estimated 17 million employees telecommuted in 2010, according to the World at Work Telework Survey. The majority of these telecommuters worked from home at least one day per month.

There’s no doubt that telecommuting has modest beneficial effects on a range of employee outcomes. Our research indicates that telecommuting is associated with a range of beneficial outcomes including improved autonomy, job satisfaction and performance, and reduced stress and work-family conflict. Importantly, outside of one exception, there are no significant negative relational outcomes associated with telecommuting. Still, those modest benefits may be outweighed by their potential costs under some narrow circumstances.

First, it’s not clear if Yahoo’s ban applies primarily to employees who work from home 100 percent of the time or whether it also extends to those who do so part-time (that is, perhaps once or twice a week.) If it’s only the former, then Mayer is onto something here. Our meta-analysis shows that employees involved in high-intensity telecommuting (more that 2.5 days a week) tend to report that they are less satisfied with their relationships with their co-workers. This spells trouble for full time telecommuters working in teams or in high interdependence jobs, which require collaboration and coordination. However, there is little evidence of any negative relational effects of low-intensity telecommuting (less than 2.5 days a week).

A leaked memo to Yahoo employees argued that showing up for work at a Yahoo office was the key to enhanced collaboration and teamwork. Compared to a worker who is a low-intensity telecommuter, how much truth is there to that reasoning?

Low-intensity telecommuters are better equipped to use electronic communication media for collaboration and teamwork when they work from home relative to high-intensity telecommuters. 

When employees telecommute only one or two days a week, they still have ample opportunities for rich, face-to-face interactions with their in-office colleagues during the rest of the week. This allows them to create strong relationships with their teammates based on trust and friendship. Research suggests that employees who have strong bonds with one another are able to use electronic communication media such as email and telephone to work together more effectively than relative strangers. That is, effective electronic communication depends on a solid foundation of rich face-to-face interaction.

Low-intensity telecommuters can thus maintain effectiveness even when they work from home precisely because they also spend time working face-to-face with colleagues.

Silicon Valley companies have a reputation as being extremely employee-friendly. Google, in particular, is well-known for its copious benefits – free food, free haircuts and free laundry, to name just a few. Is this the beginning of a trend away from employee-friendly perks in the Valley? Or is this merely a cynical strategy to jettison older employees in favor of younger, cheaper labor?

For many telecommuters, Mayer’s edict carried with it portents of doom for the flexibility afforded by working from home that many information technology professionals who work in Silicon Valley have become accustomed to. If this could happen in the heart of Silicon Valley, it’s only a matter of time before employers begin re-thinking their work-from-home policies.

From a strategic standpoint, it’s a stroke of brilliance: Why lay off when you can get people to willingly leave? In the end, this may create a leaner organization that unites around a common vision in a shared space without the baggage of a senior cadre of employees with their entrenched ways of working and pet projects. 

But more significantly for companies facing a crisis such as the one Yahoo faces, the benefits of urgency and solidarity symbolized by people showing up to work possibly outweigh the costs of potential turnover among the likely minority of employees who telecommute. It’s essentially a call for “all hands on deck.” In a crisis, bits and bytes transmitted over wires are unlikely to create that sense of urgency and strong organizational identity required to pull together. Showing up to work is a test of employee commitment for an organization like Yahoo, which is in the midst of a do-or-die struggle. 

It’s also possible that telecommuting is just not for companies in crises. Just as the military cancels all employee leaves when faced with the possibility of war, telecommuting may be an unaffordable luxury for organizations confronting mortal challenges.

 

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