Breaking the shackles: The pros and cons of telecommuting

by HCA13 May 2009

Technology company Sun Microsystems has been growing its telecommuting ranks through its 'Open Work' program for more than a decade, and today nearly 20,000 employees worldwide (or 56% of its workforce) work from home at least one day a week. In Singapore, for example, about 50% of the 560 employees are on a flexi-work arrangement that allows them to work away from the office.

Sun's program involves an integrated suite of technologies, tools and workplace practices that enable employees to work effectively from virtually anywhere in the world. The company's research has found that it saves employees both time (about 2.5 work weeks per year) and money (more than US$1,700 a year in fuel and vehicle wear).

But 'Open Work' also saves the company precious resources. Measuring how much energy was consumed while working in a Sun office versus working from home, a recent internal study found employees averaged approximately 64 watts per hour at home compared with 130 watts per hour at a Sun office. Sun has also seen a significant reduction in operating costs. Over the last six years, the company has saved about US$387m in office space and utility expenses.

These results clearly show some of the benefits derived from adopting telecommuting policies. Yet Sun Microsystems's embrace of the concept remains by and large an exception in Asia and Australia. Until now, very few companies have considered it a feasible alternative to traditional work arrangements. But the tide is slowly, very slowly, turning and more firms are now embracing flexi-work models that will allow for limited telecommuting.
Security, productivity concerns
Adam Bowden, a senior consultant with Robert Walters, believes the biggest concerns for most companies remain security issues and the additional costs attached to them, along with issues of productivity. "Companies are still concerned about security in terms of losing vital information and system access," he explains. "There is also a lack of trust, which is why telecommuters tend to be more senior employees. That's unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future."

Another common obstacle limiting the reach of telecommuting in many organisations is the fact that many still measure work performance based purely on output. Seeing staff in the office reassures organisations that they are working diligently on their projects. It also allows employees themselves a sense of security that they are working as required.
But perceptions about productivity are slowly changing in the region. According to a recent survey conducted by consulting group IDC, a growing number of Asia-Pacific managers are coming to understand the value of telecommuting. They have found that contrary to the popular beliefs, telecommuting can actually improve productivity. The 2008 survey shows that 80% of managers in the region agree that telecommuting improves performance, up from 60% in a similar survey from 2005. The most recent research also found that 78% of managers believe their organisations trusted their telecommuting employees, an increase from 66% in 2005. Many respondents also viewed telecommuting as a means of improving work-life balance among their employees.

Pete Baker, HR manager with Procter & Gamble Prestige Products, says telecommuting is an important part of the company's employer brand, and it now allows staff to telecommute one day a week. "For us, telecommuting is a genuine productivity enhancement tool," he says. "We believe telecommuting allows employees to concentrate on priorities, which can be more difficult to do in the office when you're interrupted throughout the day. We've found employees tend to do their planning and more strategic work when they're doing their work at home."

Other companies report that telecommuting has proven particularly useful for employees who are doing 'individual work' such as planning, policy development and writing reports or papers.

In Australia, IBM has taken the lead with hotdesking and telecommuting. Robert Orth HR director, IBM Australia/New Zealand, says that although technology has been an enabler of this, it is just one colour in a bigger painting. "Look at the world today - kids can get any information at any time - they're all used to it. So technology was the enabler but that didn't necessarily give us the advantage. Instead it's about changing how people manage, how they interact, how they network. It's a tough road but I think we've done well and we have focused on it because we needed the skills, capabilities, productivity, and reach into the best talent. I can now talk to people wherever they are in the world," he says.

Making it work
There are several important factors that need to be in place before telecommuting can be seriously considered. First and foremost, the company must embrace a culture of trust. "If you've got that, the other things will take care of themselves," says Baker.

Secondly, companies must ensure employees have the right working environment at home including a quiet space that is free of distractions. "Telecommuting is not a quasi-childcare arrangement. You can't have a situation where you're trying to take care of kids and work from home simultaneously. That's not what's it's designed to do," Baker points out. "As a parent of young children myself, I've certainly learned that you can't take care of kids at the same time as you are working from home. You end up not doing either well."

During their working hours employees must be available and in touch with colleagues, customers and other partners. For that to happen, the organisation must have the necessary IT support and other telecommunications infrastructures in place.

Paul Greene, head of HR, UBS Singapore, believes there must be an alignment between the company's flexi-work policies on paper and the mindset of line managers.

"My advice is that we should focus not so much on the policies and official arrangements and opportunities, and focus more on whether managers are able to effectively allocate the work flow to staff that may not be physically present. They must also ensure employees are evaluated and compensated appropriately for their level of contribution. You cannot have a situation where the manager is not intimately aware of the work being done by the individual not working in front of his eyes," he says.

While telecommuting certainly should not be used against staff during appraisals, employees should also not abuse the trust that the employer has placed in them. For telecommuting to work, it is important for both parties to adopt the right mindset and attitude.

IBM has taken a pragmatic approach and has worked with both employees and managers to ensure the practice works. "We've educated employees about what we formally have available, what their responsibilities are, and how they can utilise these practices and still interact with their team and their manager. We work with managers because this is quite challenging for them - the old world used to be 'if I can't see them how do I know what they're doing?' So we've done workshops with the management team and we've also developed practices and policies around productivity that doesn't require people to be in the office," Orth says.

Elizabeth Eu, HR director, Asia Pacific Region, Sun Microsystems, says HR should not forget the social needs of employees who are telecommuting. "Behind the individual there is a natural need for social affiliation. You must supplement communication with formal town hall meetings, informal networking events, and volunteering," she explains, "You have to look at alternative ways in terms of engaging and pulling in employees, including those working from home, to partake in company events. There is still a need for employees to feel they are part of the company through social activities."

Pros and cons
One of the unspoken advantages of telecommuting is that it allows the organisation to be prepared and remain functional in times of national disaster. A pandemic or terrorist strike could force people off the streets but if staff are able to work from home, it can significantly reduce the business impact of such events. Telecommuting can also prevent smaller disruptions from having an effect. During the recent Singapore Formula One Grand Prix, UBS encouraged many of its employees to telecommute to avoid the traffic and access restrictions around its Suntec office.

Telecommuting has also been found to improve staff engagement and commitment. Employees see it as an important employee benefit that doesn't necessarily cost the organisation anything beyond the initial infrastructure and technical set up. "Take work to the people, not the people to work," says Orth.

Eu believes Sun Microsystem's program enhances its ability to attract and retain the best talent available. "Attrition rates have been kept very low. We've reviewed attrition by category, and it is the lowest for those working from home," she says.

But many companies that are embracing flexi-work arrangements, including UBS, still believe that telecommuting should be mainly used as a 'tool' on a situational or periodical basis rather than as a permanent employment strategy. "In our industry, many jobs simply cannot be done from home. For example, private bankers cannot access confidential client information at home, and transactions are agreed upon and executed in the office," Greene explains.

"Most jobs still necessitate interaction between individuals in an office environment."

Baker also points out that there are still "a lot of benefits" for collaboration and team building that derive from the strong interpersonal relationships that can only be built in face-to-face situations.

Case study: Sun Microsystems
At Sun Microsystems, the 'Open Work' telecommuting program has proved so successful that even new hires are expected to work from home. Elizabeth Eu, HR director for the Asia-Pacific region, says managers need to justify why any employee needs a permanent desk assigned.

"We have an assessment tool to enable managers and employees to determine whether their job is suitable for flexi-work or full home-based work," she says. While employees who telecommute have no permanent desk assigned, they can 'reserve' space through a central system whenever they need to attend the office.

Even the Sun HR team takes advantage of the telecommuting opportunities. Out of 10 HR department staff based in Singapore, all but one telecommute.

For example, Brindha Bal, who is in change of talent acquisition and manages a team of recruiters and talent sources across Asia, has been working full-time from home since she joined the company 18 months ago. Bal's day often starts around 7am with a call to her manager and can finish as late as midnight, in order to accommodate conference calls with the global team.

Where to start?
To take full advantage of flexible work arrangements, organisations need to:

  • Invest in technology to enable staff to telecommute and ensure your IT team can support them in the event of a communications breakdown
  • Clearly set out work expectations so both employees and managers are clear on what is required
  • Ensure employees have the proper 'office' environment at home
  • Educate line managers to allocate work flow and reward appropriately
  • Ensure telecommuters are regularly involved in corporate activities so they remain part of the team