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Nanette Fondas's picture

This story originally appeared in Psychology Today.

National Telework Week buzzed about, ironically, bans on telecommuting. Last week, Best Buy announced the end of its work-at-home program known as ROWE (results-only-work-environment), on the heels of Yahoo’s ban on remote work a week before.

Then snowstorms hit the midwest and east coast, closing schools and businesses, and people turned to — you guessed it — teleworking to stay productive and safe. When the snow melts, will the backlash against teleworking continue? The temptation for companies to mimic one another always exists, but this one should be resisted. Here’s why.

The Census reports that in 2010,13.4 million people worked at home at least one day per week. This represented 9.4% of all U.S. workers and was an increase of 4.2 million over the previous decade.

More and more people prefer jobs that offer telework and other options for working flexibly. In The Custom-Fit Workplace, a book I co-authored, we report that parents are not the only workers who crave flexibility in when and where they work: One in three workers say being able to flexibly balance work and life is the most important factor in choosing a job. Workers of all ages and ranks want MORE flexibility and will take a pay cut to get it.

The business benefits of telecommuting are well-established in both the private and public sector. In an increasingly globalized world, it ranks more as an essential competitive business tactic than a disposable employee benefit. One reason is that telework allows some organizations to expand their talent pool and recruit from anywhere, seeking the best candidates regardless of location. Further, in dual-career families, one spouse does not get displaced automatically when the other must relocate. The majority of families in the U.S. today need two earners to make ends meet.

But the advantages don’t end there. The secret is that the value of workplace flexibility to employees creates a virtuous cycle for employers and their businesses. People who are trusted by their employers feel job satisfaction and commitment. This translates into productivity, retention, and turnover cost savings -- estimated to be as high as three times an exiting worker’s wage.

But it’s more than the dollars saved by retaining key employees. It’s about the loyalty engendered and how that translates into bottom line results for business. For example, it’s estimated that workers who telecommute, work on average, 5-7 more hours per week than office-exclusive workers. A recent Gallup poll found teleworkers more engaged than their in-office counterparts; and a Stanford study found them 13% more productive.

A meta-analysis of 46 studies on remote work featuring 12,883 employees found telework increased their autonomy and resulted in more satisfied, productive workers who were less likely to quit their jobs. In addition, some autonomy, control, and flexibility in when, where and how work gets done combats stress, burnout, and associated serious health risks such as cardiovascular disease. Saving lives, helping families, reducing health care costs: the benefits to individuals, businesses, and society all begin to pile up.

To be sure, telework is not a panacea. Some people may be ill-suited for the discipline it demands. Managers must be trained to manage for results and they must be comfortable relinquishing some control. And there is no doubt that some collaborative processes require in-person contact, just as surely as some cognitive processes (thinking!) require solitude.

Teleworking does not work in all jobs or companies all the time. The common tie between Yahoo and Best Buy ending their remote/work-at-home options is that top management is struggling to find the best practices to turn around results in an age of mobile, online, internetworked competition from every corner of the earth. But thousands of other companies use telework as an essential part of their portfolio of management practices to engage, motivate, and reward employees while, at the same time, boosting the bottom line.

Indeed, there is over 60 years of business scholarship on creating a fit between an organization’s strategy and organizational practices to enhance company performance -- both financial results and human relations. “Workers are your most valuable asset” is trite but true, and global competition requires employee needs be part of the mix for an organization to thrive.

Remote work programs may not be “working” right now for Yahoo and Best Buy, but there are other forms of flexible working arrangements that could fit: implementing more flexible hours for workers in-office, allowing a babies-at-work program, or letting parents create non-standard career tracks. Outside of these two companies, there are 13.4 million reasons not to ditch the promise remote work -- or another type of flexible work arrangement -- offers the American worker and economy.

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