Category Archives: telework

The End of Telecommuting?

For many IBM employees, telecommuting will soon be a distant memory.

“Disrupt” is a catchy term in business these days, especially in the technology industry. Now one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent technology companies is disrupting what had become a common method of working for many of its employees: Thousands of IBM employees who telecommute are being called back to the office, and those who can’t or are unwilling to will be expected to find employment elsewhere.

Big Blue’s U.S. marketing department is the latest unit at IBM to announce that employees will now be “co-located” in central offices rather than working from home or in remote locations. The department, comprised of 2,600 employees, will now consist of teams working together at one of six offices located in Boston, New York, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin and San Francisco.

Ironically enough, IBM was a pioneer in the telecommuting revolution, as noted in a story in Quartz. As recently as 2009, writes author Sarah Kessler, 40 percent of the company’s 386,000 global employees worked at home. When IBM acquired start-ups, the employees at those companies were allowed to continue working in their original locations rather than moving to central IBM offices.

Michelle Peluso, IBM’s chief marketing officer, tells Kessler that the benefits of employees working together in the same offices include “speed, agility, creativity and true learning experiences within your team.” “When you’re playing phone tag with someone is quite different than when you’re sitting next to someone and can pop up behind them and ask them a question,” she said.

Kessler cites studies showing a “water cooler effect” that arises from people working together in the same location — informal interactions that can lead to the sharing of ideas and more collaboration. CEOs such as Steve Jobs were big fans of co-location. Jobs, in fact, was so obsessed with the benefits that arise from unplanned meetings between coworkers that he wanted to place the bathrooms at Pixar’s headquarters in just one section of the building to increase the likelihood of those serendipitious interactions, Kessler writes.

IBM is struggling to reinvent itself, she writes, as the rise of cloud computing forces it and other large technology companies to rethink their business strategy. Its leaders believe having employees work together instead of remotely will better enable the sort of collaboration and increased productivity that’s desperately needed.

Of course, coworking has proven not to be a panacea for troubled companies in the past — just look at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Mayer announced back in 2013 that telecommuting would no longer be allowed. Yahoo recently sold itself to Verizon for a tiny, tiny fraction of what it was once worth. Many IBM employees are distraught by the new arrangement: “Everyone I know is very upset,” one employee tells Kessler.

Other employees think co-location is an improvement over teleworking. “I think that getting everyone in a room, hashing it out, throwing it up on a whiteboard is my preference rather than doing share screens,” an employee tells Kessler. “People pay attention so much less when on the phone.”

That employee, however, is choosing to quit rather than make the move, Kessler writes.

‘Flexing’ to Close Gender Gap

Seventy percent of working mothers say having a flexible work schedule is extremely important to them, according to a Pew survey. (So do 48 percent of working fathers.)

To that end, a new job board is looking to leverage workplace flexibility to help close the gender gap, according to this new piece in the New York Times Upshot section:

A new job search company, Werk, is trying to address the [gender-gap] problem by negotiating for flexibility with employers before posting jobs, so employees don’t have to.

Facebook, Uber and Samsung are among the companies with job listings on the Werk site, in which all the positions listed “are highly skilled jobs that offer some sort of control over the time and place of work. People can apply to jobs that let them work away from the office all the time or some of the time, and at hours other than 9-to-5, part time or with minimal travel.”

Another option the site offers gives workers the freedom to adjust their schedules, no questions asked, because of unpredictable home and/or family obligations.

The story quotes Gerard Masci, founder and chief executive of Lowercase, a start-up eyeglass maker in Brooklyn, who just hired a vice president for communications on Werk. The company’s new hire works part-time and remotely, except for monthly in-person meetings.

“I don’t care if this week you work less if in a month you work more, and whether they work in the space or not is irrelevant,” Mr. Masci said. “All I care about is the productivity in the end.”

The full story is well worth a read for any HR leaders who are looking for ways to improve flexibility efforts without sacrificing productivity or quality talent.

 

Debunking the Myths About Millennials

Nowadays, it’s pretty much impossible to attend an HR conference that doesn’t have at least one session focusing on the subject of millennials—and this year’s HR Tech Conference is no exception.

In her remarks during a session titled “Engaging and Retaining a New Generation of Workers at LivingSocial,” LivingSocial Senior Vice President of HR Colleen Wood (who co-presented with Adam Rogers, chief technology officer at Ultimate Software, the firm’s HR software vendor) debunked three “millennial myths.”

Myth #1, Wood said, is that millennials won’t do grunt work. Millennials at LivingSocial, she explained, are ready to prove themselves in any way possible by volunteering for pilot groups and becoming part of “tiger teams,” though many still want to be reassured that their efforts are going to a greater good.

Myth #2, she said, is they want the job on day one. LivingSocial’s millennials, she said, want to hit the ground running on day one and they use learning tools, such as LivingSocialU, on a daily basis to grow their skills in all areas—including those outside of their own professional job description.

Myth #3, she continued, is they want managers to do the work for them. LivingSocial’s open floor plan, she explained, allows millennials to collaborate with their manager at any time. “We try to make it easy for managers and employees to get together and collaborate with one another,” she said.

Wood noted that 28 percent of LivingSocial employees work remotely. “That means we have to give employees tools to keep them connected,” she said, adding that the company provides “virtual watercoolers” so remote workers can keep up-to-date on developments.

She pointed out that LivingSocial has also modified its recruiting strategy, including the way it crafts job ads, to attract the right kind of talent to the company. “We try to use words that capture the kind of culture that we have … and help people understand the kind of environment they’re going to be working in,” she said, citing words and phrases such as “attention to detail, competitive, energetic, competitive, taking smart risks and compassionate” as examples.

Wood also listed three key attributes that are at the heart of LivingSocial’s HR technology strategy and went into the firm’s selection of Ultimate Software: accessibility, usability and functionality.

At the end of the day, she said, HR technologies need to allow employees to focus on being successful at their jobs—and not get in the way.

Telecommuting By Way of the Middle Lane

There’s no denying that telecommuting is now a well-entrenched strategy at many companies, both large and small. But despite its widespread acceptance, many organizations continue to struggle to get it right.

ThinkstockPhotos-80700729No surprise, then, that there’s been more than a few studies on the subject over the years, including one just published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The research and resulting article—titled “How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings”—suggests that, like many things in life, telecommuting works best when it’s practiced to a “moderate degree.”

In their article, the researchers—Tammy D. Allen of the University of South Florida, Timothy D. Golden of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Kristen M. Shockley of City University of New York—note that telecommuting is rarely an “all-or-nothing work practice” and “the frequency with which work is done away from the central office is likely to make a difference .”

For example, the research finds that job satisfaction is highest among those who telecommute a moderate amount, compared to those who telecommute either a small amount or more extensively.

What’s more, the researchers write, “individuals who spent more time telecommuting exhibited lower job performance as a result of professional isolation than did those who spent little time telecommuting.”

They also report that autonomy plays a significant role in the success or failure of an initiative.

Workers who have more autonomy and more control over telework and when they complete their tasks, they say, seem to benefit more from telecommuting arrangements than those who don’t.

In a commentary accompanying the report, Families and Work Institute Vice President of Research Kenneth Matos and President and Co-Founder Ellen Galinsky note 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.”

I suppose a key word here is “nuances.”

As this latest research makes clear, employers would be well served to remember that the “devil is in the details” when it comes to crafting an effective telecommuting program.

Remembering Katrina, 10 Years Later

It’s difficult to fathom that it’s been 10 years since Katrina made landfall and wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding region.

Katrina heading toward the coastline on August 28.
Katrina heading toward the coastline on Aug. 28, 2005.

I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded of the devasting storm delivered to the region. But just in case, here’s a brief excerpt from the August 30, 2005 edition of the New York Times

“Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast with devastating force at daybreak on Monday, sparing New Orleans the catastrophic hit that had been feared, but inundating parts of the city and heaping damage on neighboring Mississippi, where it killed dozens, ripped away roofs and left coastal roads impassable.

Officials said that, according to preliminary reports, there were at least 55 deaths, with 50 alone in Harrison County, Miss., which includes Gulfport and Biloxi. Emergency workers feared that they would find more dead among people who had been trapped in their homes and in collapsed buildings.

Jim Pollard, a spokesman for the Harrison County emergency operations center, said many of the dead were found in an apartment complex in Biloxi. Seven others were found in the Industrial Seaway.

Packing 145-mile-an-hour winds as it made landfall, the storm left more than a million people in three states without power and submerged highways even hundreds of miles from its center.The storm was potent enough to rank as one of the most punishing hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Insurance experts said that damage could exceed $9 billion, which would make it one of the costliest storms on record.”

As we all know, the toll turned out to be a lot worse than those (and other) initial estimates—and, as Gary Rivlin makes clear in his new book Katrina: After the Flood (the release of which was obviously timed for the 10th anniversary), the impact, in many ways, continues to be felt today.

Of course, as far as employers are concerned, Katrina’s 10th anniversary raises the ever-important question, “From an employee and operational standpoint, are we better prepared to respond when a natural disaster strikes than we were 10 years ago?”

I’m not really prepared to address that question in this particular post, but figured it might be as good a time as any to dust off an article we posted in 2011 on HREOnline titled “Being Prepared When Disaster Strikes.” Written by Ann D. Clark, CEO and founder of ACI Specialty Benefits, an EAP and leading provider of student-assistance programs, and wellness, concierge and work/life services, the piece offers employers a road map for navigating natural disasters such as Katrina.

“Too many businesses wait until crisis strikes to act,” Clark wrote in 2011. So as Erika approaches Florida and the nation and world remembers Katrina 10 years later, here are a few of the pointers featured in Clark’s article.

“The Vulnerability Audit”

Before creating a response plan, first take a vulnerability audit or risk assessment. Remember, the workplace can be directly affected through actual physical damage in the event of an earthquake, tornado, tsunami or other natural disaster, and can also be adversely affected by employees having family members or friends impacted by a traumatic event … .

Creating a Plan

An effective plan is one that is well-rounded and capable of responding to any incident, regardless of size, scope or complexity. Make sure the plan addresses up-to-date evacuation procedures, property-damage protection, systems back-up, communication and business contingency.

HR professionals should also consider consulting with first responders and employee-program-assistance providers to ensure the plan effectively covers major areas of concern.

When preparing for an immediate threat such as a natural disaster, safety comes first.

Disaster Training and Communication

The next major step in disaster preparedness is adequate training and communication to ensure the workforce has all the tools necessary to respond and recover in times of crisis.

HR professionals should start by having a meeting focused on disaster preparedness where all of the important information can be disseminated to the entire workforce. At these meetings, topics such as where the emergency supplies are located, where the office safe area can be found and how to respond to each kind of respective emergency can be covered.

Preparedness in Action

In Florida, companies are often threatened by hurricanes and have learned first-hand how preparedness works.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House learned the communication plan was one of the most important pieces of its disaster planning when Hurricane Katrina struck. Without phone lines, the management team was able to locate all but three of 370 employees in affected areas within a few days using text messaging.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the company’s disaster plan also includes pre-hurricane-season tree-trimming around restaurants, an outline of items for each store’s disaster-supply kit and step-by-step instructions on ways to secure the building and food supplies before evacuations.

Turning to Professional Resources

A major part of disaster preparedness is knowing where to turn for resources and support. One of those crisis-response resources is the employer’s employee-assistance program.

When the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, there were a variety of U.S.-based companies with employees and family members in Japan who needed to be evacuated immediately. Some of ACI Specialty Benefits’ clients turned to the EAP resources for prompt support in ensuring these employees and family members were taken care of. …

In critical situations, EAP services can be invaluable in providing prompt and professional support to address a wide range of business and personal needs, including the provision of on-site counseling support to management and staff.

Advice well worth remembering, I would think, especially as the coast of Florida braces for Tropical Storm Erika, which could possibly make landfall as a hurricane early next week.

Is Telecommuting Leveling Off?

Earlier this month, Gallup conducted its annual Work and Education poll and made an interesting discovery: while telecommuting has become more common, its growth has appeared to level off in recent years.

“It is unclear how much more prevalent telecommuting can become because it is really only feasible for workers who primarily work in offices using a computer to perform most of their work duties,” states the Gallup report.

Has telecommuting reached its peak?

Not a chance. It’s important to consider that people telecommute in two basic ways: employees who work from home or at favorite neighborhood spots like the local bookstore or Starbucks and those who hold down a traditional office job but then telecommute during evenings or weekends as needed.

Here are some of the results of the Gallup survey, which conducted 1,011 telephone interviews of American adults (at least 18 years of age) from Aug. 5 – 9:

37 percent say they have telecommuted, up from 30 percent from last decade.

  • 46 telecommute during the workday.
  • 55 percent are college graduates while 52 percent have an annual household income of $75,000 or more.
  • 44 percent are white-collar professionals while 16 percent are blue-collar workers.
  • The average worker telecommutes two days per month
  • The average number of workdays that workers telecommute has not changed much since almost a decade ago (2006).

However, people’s views about the productivity of telecommuters may also change its future path. Fifty-six percent of survey participants now believe remote workers are just as productive as those who work in offices compared to roughly 45 percent a decade ago. Approximately 17 percent believe they are more productive while roughly 18 percent say they are less productive.

Another influencer are companies like Yahoo that pulled back the corporate reigns on telecommuting several years ago, changing company policies that now require all employees to work in the office. Bummer.

Still, I have a hard time believing that telecommuting has reached maturity. Due to technology advancements and the ingenuity of the American worker, there’s no telling what will happen next.

As proof, some creative approaches are already being implemented for nonoffice workers. Several years ago, Emler Swim School, which supports nine locations in Texas and Kansas, began using web-based water chemistry control systems that enable the director of maintenance – pool operations to remotely monitor and control the pool’s water chemistry with network-enabled devices like a PC, smart phone, iPad or tablet.

The technology opened the door for nontraditional telecommuting during off-work hours. Although it doesn’t replace the need for manual controls, the director can still make the same adjustments at anytime from home (or anywhere else) as if he was physically standing in front of the controls at the school.

Although some occupations will remain exempt from telecommuting opportunities, ranging from hospital nurses to restaurant chefs or servers, there are bound to be more unusual examples as the line between work and home grows fuzzier.

So expect the number of telecommuters to climb in the years ahead as well as more changes in the types of workers who telecommute. The best scenarios are yet to come.

Bullish on Wellness

Good news out of the Society for Human Resource Management yesterday for those looking to move the needle on greater employee buy-in for wellness.

174186054According to the association’s Strategic Benefits survey, more than one-half (53 percent) of the 380 responding employers said employee participation in wellness programs climbed last year. This follows similar findings in 2013 and 2012, when 56 percent and 54 percent of the respondents, respectively, reported a jump.

What’s more, more than two-thirds of the employers that offered wellness indicated that their initiatives were either “somewhat effective” or “very effective” in reducing the costs of healthcare in 2014 (72 percent), 2013 (71 percent) and 2012 (68 percent).

The SHRM study also found two-thirds (67 percent) of organizations with such initiatives in place offered incentives or rewards aimed at increasing participation, representing an upward trend from 2013 (56 percent) and 2012 (57 percent).

Of those organizations offering wellness incentives or rewards, 85 percent said these incentives were “somewhat” or “very” effective in increasing employee participation.

The study also found the number of organizations with wellness programs was on the rise in 2014, with about three-quarters (76 percent) of the respondents saying they offered some type of wellness program to employees last year, an increase from 70 percent in 2012.

In all, these findings paint a fairly positive picture as far as wellness is concerned. But one weak link uncovered in the SHRM research, not surprisingly, continues to be on the measurement front. Few companies, SHRM reports, are actually measuring the ROI or cost-savings analyses of their efforts (18 percent and 30 percent, respectively).

Nine in 10 (90 percent) of the respondents whose organizations had wellness initiatives said their organizations would increase their investments in its wellness initiatives if they could better quantify their impact.

(Some critics would argue that, were they to measure the effectiveness of these programs, they might not be nearly so bullish.)

The SHRM research also looked at flexible-work arrangements, finding that about one-half (52 percent) of organizations provided employees with the option to use FWAs, such as teleworking. Of those offering employees such options, about one-third (31 percent) said participation in these initiatives increased last year, compared to the year before. Just 1 percent indicated employee participation had decreased.

Though one in two employers provided employees with the option to use flexible-work arrangements, the survey found only one-third (33 percent) reporting that the majority of their employees were actually allowed to use them.

Something I would think employers will need to address, sooner rather than later, considering Gen Yers (big proponents of flextime) are projected to represent the majority of the workforce in the not-too-distant future.

 

Telework May Be Harmful to their Health

Telework has been taking its share of hits lately. And I’m not referring to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer or Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly and their well-reported decisions to either end or limit telecommuting at their companies.

139246933 -- tired teleworkerI’m talking about research conducted awhile back — and recently reported on — by Timothy Golden, associate professor at the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. His study of 316 adult employees at a large computer company found working from home can enhance feelings of physical and mental fatigue in people who are already having a hard time balancing their personal and professional lives.

So, basically, working at home might not be so good for you. Tell that to the employees trying to convince you otherwise. Or the work/life experts telling you the same.

As noted in a piece on the Springer website, Golden’s work-at-home (or primarily work-at-home) participants were asked to answer questions about the levels of work-to-family conflict they experienced, including whether work kept them from family activities more than they would have liked, and whether they were too stressed to do the things they enjoy at home due to pressures of work. Golden also looked at levels of family-to-work conflict, such as time spent on family responsibilities interfering with work responsibilities, and difficulties concentrating on work because of stress from family responsibilities. Levels of work exhaustion and the extent and timing of telework were also assessed.

Golden and his crew found the more work and family demands conflicted, the more people suffered from exhaustion. Those with already high levels of work-family conflicts suffered higher exhaustion when they spent extensive time working from home, irrespective of whether they worked during traditional or non-traditional work hours. However, those who had lower levels of work-family conflicts suffered less exhaustion, which was further reduced by teleworking during either traditional or non-traditional work hours.

As this piece about Golden’s research in Parade magazine says:

You’d think with more time at home, and no commute, in most cases, that things would be easier. But when you work at home, there are constant reminders of the work/family conflict, such as laundry and dirty dishes — not to mention interruptions by children and other family members. This actually raises stress levels, and is why having a dedicated work space and boundaries is your best bet if you want to leave the world of cubicles. Then, when you add on things like possible poor posture, lack of exercise and bad eating … well, you can see why working at home may not be so ideal.”

In this piece from Science Newsline, Golden adds this comment:

Whereas individuals may adopt telework as a means to enhance their quality of life and reduce exhaustion, those with low levels of conflict between work and family seem able to benefit more from telework than those individuals who have high levels of conflict between their work and home.”

Specific though they may be to teleworkers’ stress, exhaustion and family conflicts, Golden’s findings do help underscore — or, at the very least, suggest — a general retreat from the glory days of flexible work and home offices. In fact, this piece in Slate features a much-more-recent study, the 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute, showing that overall, there’s less support among U.S. employers today for a flexible-work culture than there was in 2008.

This certainly flies in the face of the rhetoric out there, that employers better brace for the telecommuting/flexible-work revolution.

On the contrary, based on a recent study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., which I wrote about in this April 7 news analysis, it appears employers are hardly making strides to ready themselves for any such revolution, let alone ensure that their flexible work is even working. That study shows flexible arrangements aren’t being offered to most employees, and employers’ flexible-work options are too limited in scope and type to be effective.

As Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center, told me then, “the take-home message here is ‘our work isn’t done.’ ”

Indeed.

 

 

A Collective Approach to Time Management

time and teamsHow can you get a team to manage its time more efficiently and productively? Give them a time-off goal.

That’s according to Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow, who writes in the June edition of Harvard Business Review (subscription required) about her work introducing time-based interventions at various companies in a range of industries, from consulting to pharmaceuticals. Given the modern workplace’s emphasis on connectivity and collaboration, she writes, the problem isn’t how individual employees manage their time — instead, it’s how employees manage their collective time in working together to get the job done. Often, Perlow writes, teams will — in the course of their work — stick to tried-and-true processes that are inefficient, simply because, well, that’s the way things have always been done.

Perlow cites the example of a large pharmaceutical firm she was advising, in which an “overly collaborative culture” resulted in constant meetings throughout the workday that got in the way of employees getting their work done during regular hours and necessitated them having to take it home or work weekends. The team Perlow was studying at this company decided to rally around the time-off goal of one meeting-free day a week. During that day, the team members worked from home and conference calls and other virtual meetings were banned. The day was a success: saved from constant interruptions as well as commuting time, the team members dubbed it their Enhanced Productivity Day.

The EPD was also effective in that it served as a “forcing mechanism” in getting the team to rethink its need for meetings and their duration, Perlow writes. As a result, meetings became smaller, shorter, more focused and less frequent — and, as the EPD concept spread to other teams in the company, managers reported that employees were more focused and producing higher-quality work.

Team time management can mitigate the problem of overworked and overstressed employees, Perlow writes:

To help workers manage their time, we should stop telling individuals to change themselves and start empowering them to act together to change the way they work. Small steps can make a big difference. By rallying around a modest time-off goal, teams can develop a new capability: managing their time as a team.

 

On the Flexible-Work Bandwagon

flex workCompanies that cut telecommuting options may grab the headlines, but it’s safe to say that most of the corporate world has gotten on board with the flexible work concept.

A 2013 WorldatWork survey of 566 organizations, for example, found 88 percent of employers offering some form of telework options to employees, with just 3 percent of companies canceling telework programs within the last two years.

A more recent study from SHRM and the Families and Work Institute seems to confirm the rise of flexible work, at least in terms of when and where employees get the job done. The same survey, however, also finds provisions that afford employees extended time away from work on the wane.

SHRM and FWI’s 2014 National Study of Employers polled 1,051 employers of varying sizes in an analysis of changes occurring in the workplace since 2008. The number of employers reporting they offer options such as occasional remote work was 67 percent in this year’s poll, compared to 50 percent who said they did the same in 2008.

Further, 92 percent of respondents said they permit at least some groups of workers to have control over when they have breaks, up from 84 percent in ’08. Eighty-one percent of employers reported they let workers periodically change their starting and quitting times within some range of hours, while 82 percent indicated they allow employees to take time off during the workday for important family and personal needs without loss of pay.

The survey finds employers becoming less flexible, however, with regard to options that involve employees spending significant time away from work. For example, the number of companies providing job-sharing situations dipped from 29 percent in 2008 to 18 percent today.

In addition, fewer firms offer sabbaticals now compared to four years ago (28 percent this year, versus 38 percent in 2008), with career breaks for family or personal responsibilities less common as well (52 percent today, versus 64 percent in 2008). Providing the 12 weeks of leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act remains the norm for most categories of employees.

“This study is a reflection of the changes occurring in our nation,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the New York-based Families and Work Institute and lead study author, in a statement. “More than just data on policies and paychecks, this research shows us how the personal and the professional are connected, and how business is reinventing workplaces for a continually changing workforce.”

With rapid technological and demographic shifts taking place, organizations must adapt, said Matos.

“Creating an effective and flexible workplace can help organizations meet the business needs of today and adjust to rapidly changing needs.”