Secret to successful telecommuting? Moderation, research shows

Ana Aresta works from her home in Delta, B.C. on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
Ana Aresta works from her home in Delta, B.C. on Thursday, June 20, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

New research is adding scientific credence to the popular belief that working remotely can be a good thing for both employees and employers — as long as certain guidelines are followed.

“The data’s pretty consistent that telecommuting is associated with more job satisfaction, more organizational commitment, and … greater productivity or job performance,” said Tammy Allen, a professor of organizational psychology at University of South Florida who has spent years studying flexible work arrangements.

Her latest labour of love, “How Effective Is Telecommuting?” was published this month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. She describes it as a “comprehensive multi-disciplinary review on all the data that exists on telecommuting.” She also admits she worked on it mostly from her home office, where she finds it easier to concentrate.

WATCH: Three-quarters of executives saw no decrease in productivity, 9 per cent saw it increase in one recent survey.

While there have been many documented advantages to working from home — including saving employers thousands of dollars — there could be potential drawbacks for employees when it comes to work-life balance.

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READ MORE: Are unlimited holidays the key to work-life balance?

Even though telecommuting may give you more control over your time, Allen said, it can also blur the lines between work and family. Not only do some telecommuters often put in longer hours, but they may get saddled with more family responsibilities because they’re at home. That distraction can sometimes make things more stressful.

The researchers’ biggest takeaway?

“It’s likely most effective when it’s done three days a week versus five days a week.”

What employers can do

The review suggests other concrete measures that can be taken to ensure telecommuting is successful. The first would be to carefully select the employees who could work remotely. The arrangement may not suit everyone, Allen points out. A telecommuter should have good discipline and self-regulation.

“What we suggest is to provide training on how to manage time…to make sure employees are well prepared,” she added. “Also making sure they have the proper equipment they need off-site.”

Another thing organizations could do, Allen said, is create opportunities — “even if they’re computer-mediated” — for telecommuting employees to interact with their co-workers.

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The way of the future

As technology continues to advance, Allen predicts, we’ll see even more remote work arrangements.

A 2014 report from the Conference Board of Canada revealed “70 per cent of millennial workers would rather telecommute than come to the office.”

READ MORE: Millennials and the changing world of work

A recent U.S. study claimed “the proportion of employees who primarily work from home has more than tripled over the past 30 years.”

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer came under fire when she put an end to telecommuting in 2013 (sources said she did it after checking how much time telecommuters spent logged onto the company network). Virgin Group founder Richard Branson called it “a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever” in a commentary titled “Give people the freedom of where to work.”

Allen agrees employers’ mindsets can be outdated when it comes to this topic. She feels a lack of trust is “absolutely” one of the barriers to what could be a mutually-beneficial arrangement.

“[They] don’t like the loss of control of not being able to see what their employees are doing all the time.”

The findings in the review are getting praise from The Families and Work Institute. In an accompanying commentary, Kenneth Matos and Ellen Galinsky wrote that the research “provides a powerful blueprint for practitioners to maximize the positive impacts of telecommuting while minimizing its drawbacks and understanding the nuances of what makes their telecommuting programs succeed or fail.”

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“As global markets increase in number…employers are more likely to ask how to do telecommuting the ‘right way’ rather than whether they will have telecommuting at all.”

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