If your image of an employee “working from home” features a guy in sloppy pajamas with one hand on the TV remote, the other scratching his day-old beard, you’re living in the past—and you’re losing money. Full-time telecommuters are among the happiest employees in the American workplace, as they toil from home, from coffee shops, from co-working spaces. Originally conceived as a way for employees to avoid long commutes, employers are starting to view telecommuting as a smart business strategy to retain and reward valuable talent.
Almost 4 million U.S. employees work from home at least half of the time, and 90 percent of that cohort say they are interested in increasing their telecommuting hours, meaning fewer days literally spent “in the office.” According to the most recent study from Global Workplace Analytics, the return on investment for an American business with jobs compatible with telecommuting and employees interested in working from home just half of the time is $11,000 per employee per year. On a national basis, savings would exceed $700 billion a year, according to the study. That’s for letting employees work two or three days a week from home.
But, you ask, isn’t this just for millennials? It’s true that tech-savvy younger workers say that telecommuting is the most important benefit they seek, far outweighing free food and drink, and a casual dress code they supposedly covet. But it’s middle-aged and older workers who make up the bulk of today’s telecommuters: most are older (50-plus), college educated, salaried, and non-union employees. A rising group of telecommuters includes people needing a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); in the U.S., almost 500,000 people with disabilities regularly work from home.
What, however, is possibly lost amid this encomium of greater profits, a smaller carbon footprint, mobile wizardry, and lower office rent? For one thing, there’s the issue of worker feedback, such as immediate affirmation or disapproval. The boss’s furrowed eyebrows don’t show up on email, and an emoji to that effect lacks the uh, fear, that a human face up close to yours can elicit.
Telecommuters adore their flexible schedules, their family time, their ever-present pets. “As long as you get the job done” is a comforting aphorism to hear from your manager, until someone else gets the promotion. The real challenge for telecommuters and their managers (who may also be working from home) is to create and maintain a strong identity integral to the company’s goals. Some call this “workplace presence,” a somewhat paradoxical term given that the telecommuter is, by definition, elsewhere.
Choosing to communicate mostly via screens and rarely in person means that you can’t rely on personal stories, banter, or a quick wit to signal how accessible and likable you are as a co-worker or subordinate. You have to establish your job personality, your “worker persona,” through writing, and to a lesser extent, phone skills. Skype and related platforms can make the telecommuter feel less lonely, but the intentional communications on such platforms still puts the remote worker in an isolated space, rarely privy to spontaneous office interactions of the “just wasting time” variety.
Perhaps that time not spent socializing is why telecommuters are routinely rated by managers as more productive than their in-office colleagues, by a two-thirds margin. In Minnesota, the corporation with the greatest number of telecommuting employees is UnitedHealth Group, also a national leader for at-home workers. A glance at UnitedHealth Group’s website, which includes almost 2,000 varied job openings specifically marked as “full-time telecommute,” illuminates the challenge of working from home:
Discipline is one of the most difficult aspects of telecommuting. Discipline means you’re not doing laundry or taking care of your children while working from home. Discipline is about being present in your work day, be it in meetings or emails. As human beings, we are not wired for multitasking. This may be difficult to come to terms with, but knowing if you can work on one task and be fully present will help you succeed as a telecommuter.
Under another subheading, “Personal Satisfaction,” the website wryly notes, “Maybe you feel lost after being out of the office one day. This may be an indicator that a communal environment works best for you.”
UnitedHealth Group employs 285,000 people worldwide, and 35 percent of those are at least part-time telecommuters. First-quarter 2018 revenue for the publicly held company stood at $55.2 billion. Given the size of that company, a small Minnesota business with fewer than 500 employees may find the telecommuting topic irrelevant, especially when its leaders already are worried about how to “control” employees working from home. When you consider, however, that the average full-time telecommuter saves over $4,000 each year in commuting costs, food, taxes, and professional clothing upkeep—and gains back the equivalent of 11 work days each year (from commuting hours)—the case for getting ahead of the telecommuting wave is indeed compelling.
Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps businesses and individuals with workplace issues, including MSP Communications.