Working from home
To improve the ever-worsening traffic situation in our cities, why not allow employees to stay home? More and more companies and organizations are actually allowing — even requiring — staff not to come to the office to do their work if they don’t have to. I’ve seen it vary over a wide range, from a couple of days a month to most of the time, depending on the employer, and based on the employee and nature of his/her job. It makes most sense for desk-bound jobs, especially in the information technology industries. Boris Kontsevoi, president of Intetics Co., noted: “In the tech sphere, majority of the work happens on the computer and online. [Thus] the location of the person is no longer as important, as long as they have a reliable Internet connection.” The same can be said of jobs that involve research and creative work.
The idea would have probably been seen as outlandish 25 years ago, but in this 21st century, remote communication has become so easy that it hardly matters where an employee does his/her work. In a recent corporate governance seminar I was in, a speaker argued that Philippine firms should be more open to allowing staff to work from home, citing why many firms now encourage the practice. It offers benefits for the employees, for their employers, and for the economy as a whole. Let us count the ways.
The benefits to employees are easy enough to see. In a survey of more than 4,000 respondents, Microsoft’s 2011 “Work Without Walls” study identified 10 top benefits cited by employees: 1) better work/home balance, 2) gas savings, 3) avoidance of traffic, 4) higher productivity, 5) reduced distractions, 6) elimination of long commute, 7) quieter atmosphere, 8) less stressful environment, 9) more time with family, and 10) positive environmental impact. In general, being able to work from home improves the employees’ quality of life, and as such, allows them to become more productive, makes their work more fulfilling, and lets them enjoy better physical and mental health.
From the point of view of employers, such improved productivity translates to direct benefits for the organization in terms of improved outcomes. Research evidence also indicates that companies that encourage and support working from home are able to save money in the long run, hence leading to greater profits. Among the savings incurred would be office space, now rather expensive in urban settings, along with power consumption, office supplies and refreshments. Our seminar speaker mentioned a case where the employer even found it cheaper to subsidize an employee’s air-conditioning costs at home rather than have her come regularly to the office. Employers could also find themselves benefiting from greater productive time from employees otherwise spent commuting, less unproductive time spent in needless meetings, improved worker loyalty and lower turnover, and improved public image as a company.
All these add up to tremendous aggregate economy-wide benefits, and helping solve the traffic problem is only one of them. Higher overall productivity would be accompanied by improved environment and public health, all boosting our “Gross National Happiness.”
Working from home is not for everybody, of course, as its usefulness depends on the job and the person involved. The Microsoft study found resistance from employers to stem from the assumption that employees who work remotely are probably not really working. The sentiment arises from a perceived loss of control as employers lose direct oversight and feel they “cannot witness productivity firsthand.” But this may be more a reflection of a bad manager than a bad employee. As a Forbes magazine article pointed out: “Bad managers don’t set specific, measurable goals and outcomes. So they think they are “witnessing productivity” when a worker sits in her cube, but they are really just witnessing presence… If managers would just establish goals, rhythms of communication and metrics, then they would actually know whether someone was being productive or not, regardless of where the person was physically sitting.”
Why allow work from home? Perhaps the question should be: Why not?
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