Commentary

Another take on the telework debate

man teleworking

If the desire to increase innovation is driving decisions to eliminate teleworking, there are other strategies, such as coworking, to consider before ending telework altogether. (Stock image)

As experienced teleworkers, we find ourselves somewhat surprised by the widespread attention the general media has been paying to the subject recently.

Telework is in the news because of decisions by Yahoo, Best Buy and others to end the practice within their organizations. According to the memo sent to employees by Yahoo’s human resources department (and later leaked to the media), “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

Those decisions have ignited a firestorm of criticism. But is the fuss over the message, who sent it, the potential implications — or all the above?

It is interesting how polarizing the term “telework” has become. At one end of the spectrum are advocates who believe telework offers answers to a number of major business challenges — and there is growing evidence to support this contention. There is also ample evidence to suggest that productivity goes up, workers are happier, and people achieve better work/life balance when they have the option to telework.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who question the value telework from the perspective of organization and culture, informal and interactive learning, the challenges it creates for coordinating and organizing work, and others.

Furthermore, there is research that supports the argument that physical proximity stimulates innovation, one of the purported reasons behind the recent decisions to end telework. For example, a study of some 35,000 academic papers found that the best, most widely cited research came from co-authors who worked less than 10 meters from one another.

The same study, however, supports coworking (another form of teleworking) and its role in innovation. “How closely they worked mattered as much as, if not more than, their affiliation,” said the study’s author, Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School. “Coworking’s combination of casual relationships and shared spaces can lead to some of an employee’s most fruitful collaborations.”

In other words, sharing space with anyone, not just your organizational colleagues, can promote innovation.

In contrast, there are those like Melissa Thomas-Hunt, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business who believe that proximity does not necessarily lead to better collaboration. According to her, the rise of email and other technology has lessened the need for face-to-face encounters.

“The reality is that we’re often in the same office space, and yet we’re sending emails to one another,” she said. “Any time you have individuals trying to work together, there is potential for a communication breakdown.”

The return on investment for telework is quite strong. According to the Telework Research Network, if employees with appropriate jobs who want to work from home did so half the time, companies could save more than $500 billion a year in costs related to real estate, electricity, absenteeism, turnover and productivity.

And if the desire to increase innovation is driving decisions to eliminate teleworking, there are other strategies, such as coworking, to consider before ending telework altogether.

Only time will tell if eliminating telework at Yahoo, Best Buy and elsewhere will bring benefits to those companies in the form of increased innovation, greater profitability and/or higher stock prices. Leaders have to do what they believe is right for their organizations at any given moment. However, they also have to consider the organizations’ long-term needs. Elimination of telework is a step backward during a broader transformation of work.

About the Authors

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

Norm Jacknis is director of Cisco Systems' IBSG Public Sector Group.

Patrick Spencer is director of Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group

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