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Rick Blabolil

Does Telecommuting Affect Employee Engagement?

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced an end to the company’s telecommute program, she stirred up a storm. Best Buy soon followed suit, with an announcement that there would be changes in its flexible work programs. Mayer says she made the decision to stimulate innovation. Best Buy’s reasons were similarly described: to “improve leadership, collaboration, and efficiency.” But billionaire Richard Branson, head of Virgin Group, called Mayer’s order “a backward step…when working remotely is…more effective than ever.” And within weeks the B2B division of Staples, Inc., issued a press release with the results of its telecommuting survey where 53 percent of business decision makers said telecommuting led to more productive employees and 75 percent said they noticed “happier employees.”

As leaders and HR professionals, where do we come out on this? We know the value of employee engagement and some of us might be wondering if Yahoo and Best Buy employees will become less loyal and less engaged as a result of their companies’ decisions. Consider this: work/life balance, something made more achievable with telecommuting and flexible work schedules, ranks right after “respect” in terms of what secures employee engagement according to a recent study by global consultancy Mercer.

Recent history and demographics don’t favor Yahoo’s and Best Buy’s change in direction. Over the past decade, the push has been in the direction of flexibility, whereby employees are better able to manage childcare and other family responsibilities, undertake volunteering and other community work, pursue study and recreational interests and avoid long and costly commutes.  This helped employees achieve work/life balance, while helping organizations with their own “balance” sheet savings on office space and equipment.

Moreover, we are challenged to engage younger employees coming into the workplace. Millennials especially tend to be more loyal to themselves than to their organization. They are their own brand and tend to pursue what is in their own best interests, whether opportunities to advance their careers or raise their salaries.

Whether real or perceived, reversal of employee privileges— and the subsequent change in culture— raises the risk of employee disengagement. And it could be costly. Using its 12 Elements of Engagement as a framework, Gallup conducted a meta-analysis of data from more than 150 organizations and the findings were dramatic. Comparing highly engaged workgroups to those in the bottom quartile, the analysis found that engaged employees contributed:

  • 18 percent more productivity
  • 16 percent more profitability
  • 60 percent fewer quality defects

Moreover, companies in the top 10 percent had a 3.9 percent earnings per share growth rate.

As a leader, what can you do to maintain employee engagement and create loyalty? Here are some thoughts:

  • Create and support workplace flexibility wherever possible. It may be as limited as shorter hours on Fridays during the summer or as broad as full-time telecommuting, depending on the nature of your organization’s work, it’s geographic spread, and culture.
  • Be respectful in all of your dealings. Keep in mind the Mercer study, where “respect” ranked highest in terms of creating employee engagement. Could the changes announced by Yahoo and Best Buy be perceived as a lack of respect by their employees? That’s something to think about and it leads us to my next thought:
  • Look for opportunities to create trust. One of those opportunities lies in being predictable. We live in a volatile world and as leaders we need to mitigate that within the workplace. When we approach decision making in a deliberate and predictable manner we keep external volatility at bay and create an atmosphere of trust in our organizations.
  • Bond an environment by encouraging personal connections. One example is a workplace social media platform where employees can acknowledge each other’s accomplishments, or share common interests. Connections create links and those links create loyalty.
  • Help employees to be successful. Be sure there are clear paths for advancement and support continuing education and professional development. Their success will be your success.

Where does your organization stand on employee telecommuting or flexible hours? Do you think it has an impact on employee engagement? Please share your experiences.