Opinion: Telecommuting backlash is misguided

There’s a fight brewing in the world of HR these days, and those bunny slippers you enjoy so much are positioned squarely within this conflict’s ground zero.

I’m talking about telecommuting – that sexy, new-age term for “working from home” that seems to get tossed around more than a pocket protector at an accountant’s convention.

Ever since gas prices decided to swoosh upwards during the latest recession, conventional wisdom has dictated that telecommuting is, for lack of a better term, the future. Employers offering it are typically viewed as enlightened, while those that don’t are classified as non-progressive neanderthals.

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Indeed, many of our Employees’ Choice recipients this year received wildly enthusiastic praise from employees for allowing them to work remotely.

The concept of telecommuting has even reached Parliament Hill, with job search website Workopolis advocating a “National Work From Home Day” this past Nov. 24 (the concept already exists in the United Kingdom). Liberal MP Mark Savage recently opined on the merits of such a day before the House of Commons.

In an interview, Workopolis president Gabriel Bouchard told me that “If one million people did this one day per week, it would eliminate 250 million kilograms of greenhouse gases per year, and we would burn 100 million litres less fuel.”

A compelling argument, to be sure.

But there’s also a growing backlash forming in some quarters when it comes to telecommuting.

Call the critics old-school, but some feel telecommuting is for disengaged, loosey-goosey employees who don’t really care very much about work at all.

In a recent Postmedia piece, well-known Toronto labour lawyer Howard Levitt (a counsel to Lang Michener LLP) argues passionately against the growing telework phenomenon, dismissing it as “politically correct” and a “boondoggle in the employment marketplace” that “seldom provides value.”

Mr. Levitt makes some very insightful points to support his argument. He says telework doesn’t support the “cross pollination” of ideas, since employees can’t as easily chat face-to-face.

He also says telecommuting leads to the “under-utilization” of those employees, makes them unavailable at crucial times, and makes it difficult for these employees to gain insights on their organization’s culture.

Besides that, he also says some employees are just plain lazy. “Not all employees are self-motivated,” he writes. “Some require monitoring, at least occasionally. In many of my cases, my firm has been able to establish the employees, who were supposed to be working, instead were conducting personal errands, visiting friends, even working elsewhere.”

Working from home can also lead to “distractions,” he says.

And he’s right, in some ways. Telecommuting isn’t for everyone – especially those who find motivation a personal challenge.

It’s also likely a bad idea for people with very technical jobs, who need gear that can only be found in a so-called “real” workplace.

But there are methods to combat the potential pitfalls of teleslogging, most notably through the ever-growing use of technology.

That, along with a helping of old-fashioned discipline. One of my editors several years ago, at a different publication, used to work exclusively from home (this was back before telecommuting was even a word).

She explained that to be effective she got up early, dressed in business attire and arrived at her “office” just as if she’d done a 40-minute commute (minus the white-knuckle traffic stress). She also forced herself to leave her home at least once per workday,  to avoid the urges to mutter to oneself that can sometimes accompany telework.

It required discipline, but she got it done and even said she found herself even more productive from home than in the office.

And that’s the whole problem with Mr. Levitt’s argument, really. In slamming the concept of telework he forgets that not all employees are created equal, and not all people are identical in temperament.

Some people thrive in a busy office environment. Some in a home office environment. Some thrive on conflict. Others wither.

He also implies that most bosses are completely oblivious to what their teleworking employees are doing, which does happen. This of course happens in a regular office as well, barring the installation of wiretaps on employee phones along with a vast network of in-house surveillance cameras.

Finally, in an age of economic uncertainty, telework often makes financial sense for both employees and employers. Not everyone earns a lawyer’s salary, I’m afraid, and saving $30 or $40 per week can mean a great deal to many employees.

For employers it means workers aren’t spending half their time stuck in traffic, should they live relatively far away.

The point is that unmotivated, lazy people undoubtedly will continue to exist in every environment. Telecommuting is not a “boondoggle.”

It is, in fact, often a boon to many employees and organizations, whether that’s in the form of attraction and retention, engagement or respect for one’s own employer.

It just has to be the right employee.


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