the danger of getting telecommuting wrong

January 6, 2013

sleepy telecommuter

Long time Weird Things readers have met tech skeptic Evgeny Morozov several times over the last year, and while usually I welcome his contrarian and pragmatic take on tech evangelism, his recent article at Future Tense seems to have gone somewhat astray. While trying to list all the ways in which telecommuting made work/life balance worse for many, he ended up showing how telecommuting can fail when the bosses don’t know how to manage it and the workers don’t get the reasoning behind it. Now, this isn’t to say that working from home is for everyone and every job can be done via a computer. Some people need the discipline of the office and professional customs of certain industries demand face time. But a lot of tasks can be done in a home office and not having a daily commute saves money for both the employers and employees. With less on-site workers, companies can save on office space. With less driving, workers save on gas.

But according to Morozov, telecommuters are putting in more hours, are more likely to be single, implying they don’t have families, and their bosses end up either micromanaging or unsure what to do with remote subordinates. Therefore, he continues, rather than being the wave of a future letting us better manage work and play time, telecommuting is being abused to make us work a lot more and its results are mixed at best for employers. I would be inclined to agree with this at least in part if every example he provided for his conclusion didn’t show that those involved just lunged into telecommuting with little thought or preparation. For example, his anecdote of a big government office failing at telecommuting highlighted an interesting bit of managerial double-speak that’s quite revealing. Supervisors didn’t know how to evaluate finished work and quality was slipping. How would they know quality was slipping if they didn’t know how to evaluate the work and why were there no guidelines on how to judge the work being done remotely? Sounds like a glaring management oversight of a key issue. And it only gets worse from there.

The now telecommuting employees, used to strict workdays, punching in and out, and filling out time sheet after time sheet based on hours defined by their position didn’t know if they put in a sufficient amount of hours. But putting in the hours isn’t what telecommuting is about. It’s about getting a task done up to spec on time. If you’re done early, good job. Take five and vacuum, or watch a little TV as a reward, or go on a quick jog to get yourself amped up for the next thing on your to do list. Remote work is supposed to help get things done efficiently and keep morale up by getting workers out of that most wretched invention of the 20th century: the cubicle. It’s not a way to cram in more hours into the workday. Humans can only do so much quality work in a day so trying to make them do more is simply not going to work out. For example, programmers can typically write decent code for about six hours. After that code quality goes down because we’ve spent most of our workday staring at code, screenshots, hexadecimals, and test results. Making us write code for another four is just going to give you crappy code that needs to be fixed.

I’m sure you see where this is going. If you see telecommuting as a way to wring more hours out of the day, you are doing it wrong. If you see working from home as sitting behind a desk for X hours, you are doing it wrong. Working remotely is not having a cubicle away from the office, it’s a completely different mindset which prizes completion of projects over face time in a cube. Yes, it’s really easy for managers who started their careers when PCs were still new in the business world to use the ass-in-the-chair metric, but it’s a lousy metric for anything other than employee attendance. These managers are the ones who install spyware and micromanage telecommuters because they can’t accept that they hired grown adults who should be able to be responsible in how they use their time and get work done. It’s a very 1950s and 1960s way to run an office but it’s pervasive because frankly, it’s easy and familiar. It’s not that telecommuting’s promise failed, it’s that a whole lot of companies out there never got the hang of how to do it and end up with a lot of remote workers they don’t know how to manage and do telecommuting wrong.

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  • TheBrett

    Great post. It’s annoying when employers don’t realize, as you say, that the key thing with most telecommuting work is completing particular tasks, not putting in minimum hours. The exceptions include stuff like Phone Customer Service, where what’s important is having people available to take calls for a period of time – “coverage”.

    The “six hours” thing isn’t just with programming. I’ve read that’s the case with most work – after six hours, our cognitive performance just drops off. It might be why some employers tolerate people checking the web and the like in between work.

  • Really well said! Sharon Wall, US GSA Regional Administrator’s take: Telework doesn’t create management problems, it reveals them.

  • Here’s my take on the Slate article and the bogus study it cites:

    Here’s a classic case of a writer who has a premise–telework is bad for work-life balance–and then either finds research to support it, or twists the findings so they do.

    My organization has read, cataloged, and tagged over 2,000 studies on various aspects of telework so I can say, with facts to back me up, that telework has proven to be good for employees, employers and the environment.

    No one is forcing the people to telework. They choose to largely because it reduces stress and improves work-life balance. WorldatWork, the Federal Viewpoint Survey, and hundreds of other studies suggest that somewhere between 60 and 80% of employees would jump at the chance to work at home, at least some of the time. More than a third would even take a pay cut for the opportunity [WorldatWork].

    So let’s look at the studies quoted here starting with the one from the Monthly Labor Review (MLR).

    It’s bad enough that the study was paid for with our tax dollars, but it’s even worse that those who quote it haven’t bothered to ask some basic questions about its validity.

    Here are some of the more glaring problems with the study:

    1) The research is based on data from 1997 to 2004. Weren’t we still using pagers back then?

    2) Isn’t it possible that the kind of people who take work home and work extra hours are the same people who are most likely to telecommute? Telecommuters are among the highest paid, trusted, and engaged employees [The State of Telework in the US. Yes, we published it, but the 100+ footnotes show that it is based on solid research and actual facts.].

    3) The average half-time telecommuter saves 12 days a year by not driving to work [Workshifting: The Bottom Line Benefits]. Yes, that takes into account that not all driving is reduced with telework. The MLR study referenced in this article shows that the amount of “overtime” amounts to only 2 to 3 hours a week. Twelve days in exchange for three hours doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff to me.

    4) Ninety percent of teleworkers feel being able to work flexibly improves their quality of life. It’s about flexibility and being better able to both have a job and have a life.

    5) Taking work home to work on your own time, the criteria in the MLR study, is not telecommuting.

    By the way, I’m not saying that some teleworkers don’t work harder. Research shows they give back an average of 50 to 60% of the time they’d have otherwise spent commuting, for example. That still leaves another 40 to 50% of commute time savings.

    The Pew Study
    Regarding the author’s interpretation of the Pew study, his assertion that it’s just the telecommuters who are answering email late at night is completely unsubstantiated. The Pew study concluded that we’re all doing it.

    The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Article about Tracking Employee Activity
    Quoting directly from the cited WSJ article, it says “The systems are used mainly to secure sensitive data and comply with government rules, but they also generate lots of personal information on employees’ online behavior. To avoid violating employees’ privacy, employers should tell employees they’re being monitored and track only business-related activities, attorneys say.”

    The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Article about OPM and ROWE
    Regarding the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) cancellation of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) pilot, the author is also missing some facts.

    First, ROWE and telework are not synonymous. ROWE is based on creating an entire culture of trust that supports an “anywhere, anytime” work philosophy. That aside, what really happened (based on conversations I’ve had with high level OPM officials as well as the architects of ROWE) was that the pilot exposed the slackers. When people were being measured by results, they failed. Unfortunately, as government employees, they couldn’t be fired.

    In any event, I don’t see how the ROWE outcome supports the author’s premise that telework reduces work-life balance. If OPM found that some people weren’t working as hard when they weren’t in the office, that would suggest a better work-life balance, wouldn’t it?

    The Reduced Travel Debate
    There is much debate over whether telework reduces commuter travel. For those who do so full time (a minority, the national average is 2.4 days a week), it may actually add trips and vehicle miles. Rather than chaining errands with the commute, special trips have to be made to, say, pick up the dry cleaning.

    Research by the Reason Foundation suggests that, depending on the frequency, teleworkers reduce their travel by 55 to 75%.

    In any case, the reality is that the employees have already left the building–occupancy studies repeatedly show people spend 60% of their time away from their desk.

    Thanks to technology, work is already mobile and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. So whether your employees are 9 feet, 9 miles, or 9 time zones away, if you’re not measuring by results, you’re not managing, you’re babysitting.