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Want Better Mission Accomplishment? Embrace Telecommuting!

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

By Patrick Malone
June 6, 2019

We’ve all seen them, or heard of them—supervisors who insist that the only way their organization can be productive is to have everyone in the building every day. Like Elvis, before he left the building. For some reason, these misguided souls have embraced the perspective that the only way an organization can accomplish its goals is to ensure that physical bodies are present, in person, no matter what, with no exception.

Is it an oversight and control thing? A micromanaging thing? A trust thing? All three? Supervisors and managers who so readily detest telework often claim a lack of oversight or control over an employee’s productivity if they aren’t in the office. But is that really the issue? If so, the question would be how many times each day does the, “You must to be in the office,” kind of manager actually physically check to see if an employee is being productive? And what if they have a staff of 50-75? Is their day spent hopping cubicle to cubicle to “check in?” Which leads one to ask if they are micromanaging (a bad thing) or if they have trust issues (a very bad thing).

For the employee, this creates a lifestyle question. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we average over 26 minutes commuting one way to work each day. South Dakotans are lucky with their 16.6 minute commute and our friends in Washington, D.C. commute over 40 minutes. Time on the road exacerbates child care issues, the ability to be present when the plumber arrives and struggles with juggling work and home responsibilities.

These challenges are easily resolved. Mountains of research in recent years has pointed to the advantages of telework. For example:

Operational costs are reduced. From an economic perspective, telework makes sense. Fewer workers in-house mean less office space needed, less furniture, fewer janitorial services and reduced electricity and water consumption. The extra space gained can be converted to meeting space for those times when all are present.

The workforce is more diverse. Telework opens the door to accommodate workers who may fall under The Americans with Disabilities Act. It also increases the likelihood of keeping older generations active who can continue to contribute with no loss in institutional knowledge, while at the same time attracting tech-savvy Gen Zs. The resulting diversity builds trust, improves creativity and expands the potential talent pool.

We have more time. Oddly, despite the growth of time-saving devices, we have yet to gain time from them. We’ve simply increased our capacity to work harder. The gift of time applies to both personal life and work life. Eliminating lengthy commutes frees up more time on both sides, which in turn leads to increased productivity.

Employees are more productive. Research from Texas A&M University puts the loss of productivity due to commuting at $90 billion dollars per year. Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom found that telecommuting employees work a full-shift, and sometimes more, while not struggling with productivity killers like traffic or having to leave the office for appointments. His research also showed that telecommuting employees took shorter breaks and had fewer sick days.

Employees stick around. Hiring and onboarding new workers can cost an organization thousands of dollars. And once they’re there, it just makes good business sense to create an environment where employees stay. Flexibility and telecommuting options make employers far more attractive to potential talent.  

Employees are happier. The physiological and emotional health of employees improves with telework options. One study at Boston College found reduced stress and lower burnout rates for workers with the flexibility to telecommute. This has also proven to be an advantage in employee creativity and adaptive thinking.

We show a little love to Mother Earth.  Scientifically validated and a no-brainer. Fewer people on the road mean less greenhouse emissions, reduced fuel use, and a lower carbon footprint. Workplace Analytics suggests that if all jobs suitable for telecommuting actually incorporated the practice, the average greenhouse gas reduction from just one year would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road.

Telecommuting is not for everyone in every job, nor is it a panacea for our organizational ills. It takes the right job, the right person, the right technology and clear expectations. Attention must also be focused on the need to balance virtual and in-person teams, lest relationships and trust suffer. So it is not something we should launch into without careful consideration. First, identify which positions could be potentially enhanced with a telework option. Examine the impacts on the workplace and mission accomplishment. Ensure the right people are armed with the tools they need to make it work and then set up the ground rules for performance.  

The telecommuting option isn’t the future of the workforce—it’s already here. Indeed, the traditional workplace is dead. Almost 25 percent of all Americans work from home and that number is steadily rising. Meanwhile, the evidence for an improved workplace, better productivity and happier, more engaged employees continues to mount.

So, to all those “You must to be in the office,” kind of managers —What are you waiting for?

Author: Patrick Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in state and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. Dr Malone is a retired Navy Captain. His TEDx Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at http://tedxtalks.ted.com. He can be reached at [email protected]

: @DrPatrickMalone


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