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If You Need Me, I’ll Be At Home

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Geoff Rabinowitz
January 18, 2020 

Increasing productivity and helping the organization reach its goal—that’s what it is all about. I am going to get so much work done from home while telecommuting; plus, I even get to sleep in an extra hour and don’t have to shower! Here I go, jump into some emails, well hell, the cat just barfed, I better clean that up. Back to work I go…laundry, darn-it, need to do laundry. OK, back to it, now I’m really focused; I see a bunch of emails coming in but I’m not going to look at them because I’m in the zone (I’ll just ignore the possibility that they are from coworkers or the boss and they need a quick response so they can also be productive). Man, I am so productive today, I got a whole days work done in just 6.5 hours, think I’ll take the next hour or so, “Off,” and then check email and voicemail about 30 minutes before quitting time.

Obviously this is fictionally hyperbole… or is it? Telecommuting is an interesting concept. In theory, it helps reduce carbon emissions because there is no commute, employees are more productive because of fewer distractions and they focus on more complex problems. According to Mardee Handler, it is a perk to the employee since it reduces their total work time out of the house. It’s a benefit to the organization since the employees are more productive, happier, have higher job satisfaction and engagement and are more willing to stay with the organization as discussed by Sungjoo Choi. Plus it will give the organization a leg up on the competition because of better work-life balance. It’s a win-win!

But is this win only theoretical? Research has shown that employee retention may not be as significantly impacted as was thought and productivity may be decreased because of at-home distractions. Also, the decrease in work-social interaction can cause a reduction in employee engagement and a reduced response time to other coworkers/supervisors can hinder these colleagues’ needs. Collaboration can be decreased, security issues can increase, employee abuse of the perk can easily take place and managing a diverse work unit, when it is rare for the entire team to be present, can be challenging; now, add in all of this within a public–sector environment. Public dollars pay for workspace that is often empty, public accountability is less transparent, in-office flexibility/meetings become more complicated and, dare I say, this perk may eventually become viewed as an entitlement. 

Am I advocating for the elimination of telecommuting? I am not. In fact, I utilize telecommuting myself…on rare occasions. I am advocating for reduced and more surgical use of telecommuting. The occasional use of telecommuting can allow for a quiet workspace to focus on a time-sensitive or detailed project that would otherwise take longer while in the office. Perhaps someone has a mild cold, doesn’t want to infect their coworkers or walk around all day with a tissue hanging out of their nose; so sure, in this case, telecommuting might be viable. Also, when working across time zones, the ability to work from home may help other coworkers (located elsewhere) be more productive. Each unique organization should evaluate their telecommute policies to determine if they are as efficient and effective for the organization as they can be. I stated the organization and not the employee because we are in the public sector and have a fiduciary responsibility to the public that pays for the valuable and important services the organization provides. In some cases, agencies may not have enough physical space in the office for all employees so this will, of course, add an additional variable to the equation.

While conducting an agency-specific evaluation, the agency must question what the desired outcomes are. Will telecommuting allow those to occur? If the answer is yes, then the frequency and manner of telecommuting should be evaluated and both parity and equity must be taken into account with the understanding that many similarly appearing situations are, indeed, not the same. Finally, steps should be in place to set clear expectations with the employee, measure his or her output while out of the office (this can be used for in-office tracking, too) and set clear consequences for policy violation.

One proposed approach is to make telecommuting an irregular occurrence. As an example, each employee gets one day per month to telecommute, if it can be justified. The request must be made in writing (email) to the supervisor and state why this is needed and why it will prove to be beneficial for the organization. Expectations must be set, such as accounting for the employee’s work at fifteen-minute increments and a report submitted at the end of their workday. Further, response time for email and phone calls should be the same as when not telecommuting. Again, telecommuting is a perk/benefit and should not be viewed as an employee entitlement, but rather a tool to help the organization. Remember, as with any policy, “Changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”

Author: Mr. Rabinowitz is completing his Doctorate in Public Administration from Valdosta State University. He has over 15 years of experience working for multiple federal, state and local agencies in environmental protection. He received his MS in Executive Management from the Florida State University and BSs in Marine Biology and Ecology from the Florida Institute of Technology. Please contact him at [email protected]

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