Responses to Common Objections to Telecommuting

Posted on March 21, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

I’ve already posted my thoughts about Marissa Mayer’s announcement banning telecommuting at Yahoo. Since then I’ve noticed how – after the initial indignation had abated – writers across the blogosphere and media started raising arguments taking Ms. Mayer’s side. Some of them make sense, but many confuse problems with telecommuting with problems in company culture and management competence. Having battled many similar objections when I was championing this cause at Intel years ago, I can’t resist weighing in on the side of reason… and so should you when considering allowing your employees to work from home. Here goes, then:

Objection 1: Telecommuters are inherently less effective than cube dwellers

Response: I’ve said it before, so won’t elaborate here except to state that if they’re part of a sensible telecommuting program (which typically allows 1-2 days a week at home) then telecommuters are more effective at home than in the office. I’ve monitored it in lengthy pilots in different countries, so I should know. And small wonder: a telecommuter has 1–3 more hours to work daily because they aren’t stuck in traffic; they’d have to be magicians to find a way to produce less in such a day!

If your telecommuters are ineffective then either you have a poorly defined telecommuting framework, or you’ve allowed the wrong people to telecommute.

Objection 2: Some telecommuters will abuse the privilege and slack off

Sleeping cat

Response: The idea is that while many workers may produce good value at home,  there will be those who “take advantage of the privilege granted them” and use the days at home to not work at all… perhaps to sleep, or play, or go shopping.

There is so much wrong with this notion… let’s see:

  • Telecommuting is not a privilege or a perk; it is a work arrangement that makes sense for certain people and roles. It is entered by employer and employee because they both realize it is to their mutual advantage.
  • In any well run company, not working is more disastrous for the slacker than for the company. Any well run company has means to measure performance; anyone who is not working will find themselves out of a job pretty fast. If your employees can evade work and still keep their job, your company is not well run and you have bigger problems than telecommuting.
  • If your employees are so dishonest as to cheat you, what are they doing on your payroll? To quote one academic in a discussion we had about allowing employees to use the Web, back in the mid-nineties: “an employee who surfs the web excessively instead of working is like an employee who steals paperclips to take home. I presume you guys in the industry have ways to deal with those”.
  • Employees that slack off at home will do so just as much in the office. We’re talking knowledge workers; it isn’t like they’re riveting steel beams, so you can see whether they’re working or not!
  • Just consider the insult to your employees implied in your assuming they’d spend their paid work time “Watching a game, having a Bud”. Employees are not criminals, nor children. You can and should trust them! (If you read Hebrew, here is an article I published about that).

Objection 3: Children prevent parents from working at home

Response: This is a valid concern, although frankly, working in an open space office area is just as problematic, distraction-wise. I wouldn’t worry about the telecommuter intentionally taking too much time to attend to children – a responsible parent will ensure they have someone to handle that. The real concern is that small children may badger the parent because they see him or her in the home.

This is where having a properly thought out Telecommuting Program comes in. Such a program will have a training component that will educate would-be home workers how to handle such situations, by educating the children to tell when Mom or Dad are working and not to be disturbed. And it will require parents to consider the issues and devise coping methods and child care alternatives before even starting to telecommute.

Objection 4: If you allow good people to work from home, you must allow the bad ones too

Response: This one really baffled me. The idea is that the potential slackers will claim discrimination if their more diligent peers are allowed to work from home and they aren’t, so you must let them do it too. Of course if you did that you’d be truly irresponsible, since the unsuited workers would end up in deep trouble; but here’s the scoop: you, their manager, can Just Say No! You need to have cause, but so do you when you give one employee a promotion and not another, or assign one employee to a certain task and not another. It’s called Management. If you can’t do it, or aren’t empowered to, telecommuting should be the least of your worries.

Objection 5: Telecommuting will harm employees’ Work/Life balance

Response: Actually, any kind of work in our hyper-connected world will harm Work/Life balance. Telecommuting allows one to shift the harm around a little to where the pain is less: instead of working very late at the office and then doing email at home at night, it allows one to at least have dinner with one’s family, and juggle one’s chores and problems more flexibly. In any event, a responsible company should take this matter into account when setting expectations, training its telecommuters and monitoring their progress. If you let your employees destroy their family relationships – whether or not they work from home – you are not doing a good job as a manager. Think about it…

What you should do about this

As you can see from the above, pretty much all the objections listed are really not about telecommuting per se, but rather about one or two implicit assumptions:

  • That the telecommuting setup is sub-optimal (wrong people allowed to telecommute, inadequate training of telecommuters, insufficient monitoring of how they do it, etc).
  • That the company in question has a management culture and work ethic that contain to varying degrees deep issues of employee dishonesty, manager laxness, and mistrust between the two levels.

Such situations exist. If you work at such a company, telecommuting may not be a good choice for your group. But there are many companies with honest employees and worthy managers, where the above objections are raised instinctively, simply because no one has thought the matter through. So – ask yourself: do I really believe my subordinates can’t be trusted to work if I don’t peer over their shoulders? Am I really uncomfortable measuring them by their output, and holding them responsible for it?

If you answered No to both questions, the question isn’t whether you should let your people work from home; the question is how to define a productive framework that will empower them to do so to best effect. If you need insight about that, I’m at your service.

Think about it.


Related Posts

What Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer May Be Missing About Telecommuting

New Insight Article: The Makings of a Good Corporate Telecommuting Program

Work anywhere: is it good or bad for balancing our lives?