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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Gallup: The Truth About Telecommuting

I just read this sentence in a New York Times article on telecommuting: “We know that those who work at home tend to put in longer hours and are often more productive.”

What? Is that the writer’s scientific conclusion? To me, it looks more like a note someone sends to his boss on why he isn’t coming in again today.

A lot of what I read about telecommuting assumes that it’s a good thing and that businesses should allow for more of it. The Times piece cites a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management that “found a greater increase in the number of companies planning to offer telecommuting in 2014 than those offering just about any other new benefit.”

We all hear lots of great anecdotes about productive people working at home in their pajamas or increasing their company’s performance over a latte at the local Starbucks. What’s missing here are data. So I asked Gallup’s best workplace scientists what they could find on telecommuting in our U.S. employee engagement database, which is the largest of its kind. The resulting discoveries offer a mixed picture at best.

On the plus side, people who work remotely less than 20% of the time are the most likely to be engaged of all employees: 35% of those employees are engaged, compared with an average 30% engagement in the overall U.S. workforce.

But active disengagement rises as employees spend more time off-site. Among people who work remotely 20% to 50% of the time, 18% are actively disengaged. That number increases to 22% actively disengaged for employees who work remotely 51% to 99% of the time. And here’s a killer finding: People who spend all of their time working remotely are nearly twice as likely to be actively disengaged (23%) compared with those who telecommute less than 20% of the time (12% actively disengaged).

Pretty simple math here: Working remotely less than 20% of the time is very good for engagement, but doing so 100% of the time is very bad. That’s because actively disengaged employees aren’t just miserable, but they spread their misery among their colleagues. Remote employees may infect their colleagues via email and phone calls, rather than by roaming the halls, but don’t kid yourself: They’re still doing damage to your company.

Yet people who work away from the office less than 20% of the time are, by far, the least likely to be actively disengaged -- 12% vs. 18% for the U.S. workforce as a whole. Why is that?

My hunch is that people who can choose to work at home some of the time enjoy a culture of great workplace freedom -- one where productivity trumps punching a clock. But my other hunch is that, while people love the freedom, they also draw immeasurable energy and inspiration from human interactions in the workplace. They feed off of being around their colleagues. And while working at home has many positives, the downside is isolation -- no friends and no fun.

To many of us, sitting at our desks in our pajamas, going out for an extra-long workout, and then grabbing a really good coffee and logging on at Starbucks sounds like a pretty good work schedule. But when it comes to telecommuting, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.


Josh said...
March 18, 2014 at 2:08 PM  

I think what would be far more interesting is to look at the engagement of a team/workgroup that constantly has to interact with someone who is working from home in those percentages (No Time, < 20%, 20-50%, > 50%).

Yes, the engagement level of the individual associate is important, but what about the team that they’re directly interacting with (or expected to) on a daily basis? How is it impacted? How does that one individual’s influence propagate throughout the larger team?

Additionally, I know Gallup studies the strengths of individuals and then buckets their strengths into four categories (Execution, Strategic, Influencing, Relationship). Does working from home impact the engagement of an associates more or less so based on their strengths profile? I.e. If someone is particularly heavy in Relationship strengths, how is their personal engagement impacted by working from home?

Anonymous said...
March 19, 2014 at 4:23 AM  

I love how, in the second paragraph, you lambaste the NYTimes author for a lack of a "scientific conclusion," but in your second-to-last paragraph, you share two "hunches."


Anonymous said...
March 19, 2014 at 11:58 AM  

Ultimately, I think the responsibility for engagement lies largely w/ the company.

Using your own Q12 questions - its the employer's responsibility to their employees to be sure that telecommuters have the tools and equipment to do their job, that they still understand the company mission, that their supervisor is as engaged w/ them and their success as they are w/ their onsite staff.

If an employer is going to allow telecommuting, they have to own the extra step of maintaining an engaging environment for those people. It's not enough to just grant them permission to work from home. That's the first step, not the last.

Anonymous said...
March 19, 2014 at 6:14 PM  

My hunch: My failing exec colleagues are wrong when they claim their all day golf outings are as productive as my 12 hour days at the office.

Anonymous said...
March 20, 2014 at 4:55 PM  

I agree off-sight employment has many benefits and freedoms in comparison to on-sight employment. However, in 17 years of self-employment I have never showed up in my jammies to work nor have I just jetted out for a cup of coffee. More to the contrary, when you are starting out you are working like a dog to be a success and then in later years maintaining or growing your business.

One thing both on-sight and off-sight employees have in common is if one wants to be a successful certain attributes are needed such as being on time, working hard, doing the job correctly preventing problems before they occur. This was true 20 years ago when I worked for Gallup on sight in the Consumer Division and it is true now.

People need to find their strengths and use them. They also need to find what they love and what is important to them there is a difference. If you are lucky you will find the balance and a success with them.

Anonymous said...
March 21, 2014 at 3:42 PM  

Just the idea that you call it "Telecommuting" indicates to me that you're ancient, out-of-touch, and should be dismissed.

Anonymous said...
March 22, 2014 at 10:26 AM  

Telecommuting is a privilege that turns into a right – – Josh was very correct when he compared the motivation of the individual who is allowed to telecommute with the workgroup with your short period of time begin to feel truly disadvantaged and I suspect unengaged because of the individual with special privileges. Watching this phenomenon develop over many years. Our organization has gone from a very liberal policy to 1 that forces individual to justify and explain the need for telecommuting. In an emergency or an extremely bad weather. I can certainly understand that on a normal day-to-day activity you need to be where the workgroup is.

Anonymous said...
March 23, 2014 at 4:50 AM  

Bottom line; employees working from home is a plus for most organizations, if less than 20% of the time.

Anonymous said...
March 24, 2014 at 2:51 PM  

I work from home and disagree with this. I work from home at least 80% of the time. From an engagement standpoint, I am disengaged from some of the office stuff, but it does not impact my work. Most of my company is dispersed geographically, so most of my interactions are via web conferences and phone calls, regardless if I am in the office.
Most importantly from a productivity standpoint I am disengaged from the office politics. I am not there to actively hear the rumors, to stand around and waste time with idle chit chat. I am not engaged in the clicks. Basically, I am not engaged in the non productive aspects of an office setting. As far as team building goes, that happens in my company at conferences and on site meetings (which are typically overnights) with coworkers on projects. It is possible that it is just my situation, but for me, working off site (at home) works more than it doesn't.

Anonymous said...
March 27, 2014 at 11:51 PM  

As a home worker who works 95% of the time at home, at company that has a significant number of home workers, 10% in some projects, I find your conclusions neither apply to my situation nor anyone of my remote worker colleagues. If the statistics were accurate, me or one of my colleagues would be among the significant portion of disengaged employes. I think the differences boils down to culture and practices. I think without factoring in organization culture your statistics have very limited value.

Dan Enthoven said...
April 16, 2014 at 9:00 PM  

Enkata is a company that measures employee productivity. What we have found lines up exactly with the Gallup data. Most remote workers are pretty good, but the one who are actively disengaged are disasters.

It's even worse when you have the disegaged manager/disengaged employee combo. In these situtations, you'll find situations like what they found at Yahoo: full time employees who are only working for a couple hours a day. It's harder for office based workers to get away with that.

Telecommuting has a lot of great benefits. But employers need to realize that it isn't an unmitigated good.

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