Is Yahoo's telework ban shortsighted or savvy? Data says both

Marissa Mayer's decision to end telecommuting at Yahoo ignited a firestorm of criticism for the CEO, who has been accused of sending the company back to the digital dark ages by eliminating flexible work arrangements. Employee morale will plummet, Yahoo will lose key people, and Mayer's efforts to enhance collaboration will backfire, critics predict.

There's plenty of research that seems to back up these dire predictions. Employees consistently rank telework among the most valued perks, and pro-telework organizations are overflowing with data that makes the business case for workplace flexibility. Workers are happier, productivity rises, and people achieve a better work/life balance when they have the option to telework, advocates say.

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But not all research comes to the same favorable conclusions about telecommuting. Other data finds employees view work more positively when their bosses are physically present, people tend to lie more when they're communicating virtually as opposed to face-to-face, and teleworkers are hard to hold accountable for their performance.

Some workplace metrics are impossible to measure, and some measurable metrics are subject to bias. What's certain is the success of telecommuting depends on the individual employee, company, and job that needs to get done. With that in mind, here are a slew of figures, stats and research findings related to telework adoption, employee preferences, and workplace habits.

Tons of money on the table

The Telework Research Network says that if employees with telework-compatible jobs who want to work from home did so half the time, companies could save more than $500 billion a year in real estate, electricity, absenteeism, turnover and productivity costs. Individually, that's a savings of more than $11,000 per employee per year. Another benefit? An increase in national productivity by 5 million man-years or $270 billion worth of work, Telework Research Network calculates.

More free time, cash for teleworkers

In the same scenario -- employees with telework-compatible jobs working from home half the time -- employees would gain the equivalent of two to three weeks of free time per year by not commuting to work, and they'd save between $2,000 and $7,000 in transportation and work-related costs, Telework Research Network estimates.

Best places to work are telework-friendly

Among the top 100 companies on Forbes' 2013 list of the best companies to work for, 84 offer telecommuting benefits.

Wannabe teleworkers would pay for the perk

IT pros really want to telecommute -- so much so that 35% of those surveyed in 2011 by Dice.com said they would sacrifice up to 10% of their salaries for full-time telecommuting. In a more recent ProTech survey of 1,000 IT pros, 28% of respondents listed flex time and the ability to telecommute as the best perk.

Telecommuting benefits productivity

"Companies that have embraced telecommuting have found that their remote workers are just as, if not more productive than traditional office workers," Challenger, Gray & Christmas stated earlier this month. "Analyses of Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical and many other employers have found that teleworkers are 35% to 45% more productive. American Express found that its teleworkers produced 43% more than their office-based counterparts."

On the other hand...

Slackers are out there

CareerBuilder.com had telework advocates up in arms when it released a survey saying the majority of teleworkers aren't putting in a full day's work. In the 2011 report, just 35% of telecommuters said they work 8 hours or more on a typical full-time day. The top distractions cited were: household chores (31%), TV (26%), pets (23%), errands (19%), Internet (18%), and children (15%).

Local bosses make employees happier

Where a manager works makes a difference to his or her subordinates, according to research from Timothy Golden of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Allan Fromen of GfK Custom Research. Their survey of 11,000 people found that work experiences and outcomes are generally less positive for employees who work for a telecommuting or virtual manager than they are for employees who work for traditional, on-site managers.

It's just a ploy to get more work out of employees

Employees who work from home end up working five to seven hours more a week, according to Mary Noonan, associate professor of sociology at University of Iowa, and Jennifer Glass, sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin. In their report, titled "The Hard Truth about Telecommuting," the authors analyze U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and conclude: "Telecommuting has not permeated the American workplace, and where it has become commonly used, it is not helpful in reducing work-family conflicts; telecommuting appears, instead, to have become instrumental in the general expansion of work hours, facilitating workers' needs for additional worktime beyond the standard workweek and/or the ability of employers to increase or intensify work demands among their salaried employees."

Employee morale isn't everything

When the U.S. Office of Personnel Management launched a yearlong experiment in flexible work scheduling, some metrics showed promise: the number of employees who felt they were "highly engaged" increased 12 percentage points to 56%; managers rated 82% of project participants as "high performers"; and sick/personal leave hours decreased. Yet the pilot was discontinued. According to the Federal Times -- which made a Freedom of Information Act request in order to access Deloitte's review of the pilot -- unaccountability killed the project. "OPM managers proved unable to hold poor performers accountable, work quality slumped in some cases, and employees had no idea if they were succeeding because they weren't getting enough manager feedback," the Federal Times reported.

Virtual communications boost tendencies to lie

A study by Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Mattityahu Zimbler, a graduate student, found that when people communicated using computers for instant messaging and e-mail, the amount of lying increased compared to face-to-face conversations. E-mail messages contained the most lies, the researchers found.

Ann Bednarz covers IT careers, outsourcing and Internet culture for Network World. Follow Ann on Twitter at @annbednarz and reach her via email at abednarz@nww.com.

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This story, "Is Yahoo's telework ban shortsighted or savvy? Data says both" was originally published by Network World.

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