Is teleworking a risky bet for companies?

Written by Celia Santiago, on 13 November 2019

Telecommuting is now a growing trend for companies: 29% of employees and 30% of French executives report telecommuting occasionally or regularly in 2018 (Malakoff Médéric Humanis, February 2019). The covered stakes are significant: factors of individual efficiency, attractiveness of the employer brand, tools for motivation and talent retention, reduction of absenteeism, ...

When we hear about telecommuting, we can easily imagine the numerous benefits that the employee could derive from it: enjoying the comfort of home, not having to cling to a subway pole, not being constantly disturbed by the neighboring office phone ringing all day long... in short, having a more serene and productive day! The figures from the latest study by Malakoff Médéric Humanis perfectly illustrate this: 77% of telecommuting employees report being satisfied or very satisfied, and nearly 9 out of 10 consider themselves more effective when telecommuting, a point on which they are supported by their managers.

But then, what are we waiting for to all jump on board?

Can telecommuting suit anyone? What are its impacts on team cohesion? On idea generation in the company? On the well-being of telecommuters? What are the management challenges faced by managers?

Telecommuting is not generalizable to all employees

No, telecommuting is not for everyone: some professions (itinerant salespeople, IT support teams, workplace environment managers...) are simply not telecommutable, which can tend to widen the often existing gap between so-called "support" functions, based at the company headquarters, and "operational" jobs in the field. However, for these so-called "non-telecommutable" profiles, a more detailed analysis of the daily tasks can highlight the fact that some administrative or monitoring activities can be perfectly carried out from home for a day or half-day per week (combined with part-time or travel, for example).

Autonomy, a criterion not to be neglected

But the question of the telecommutability of the profile is not the only cause of frustration: the criterion of autonomy becomes key when we talk about telecommuting.

Let's take a moment to paint the picture of the autonomous employee: not only is he capable of organizing and prioritizing his activities alone, of performing his tasks without daily support from his manager or colleagues, but he also perfectly masters his remote work and communication tools, is able to take initiatives when encountering a problem, and provides spontaneous reporting to give visibility on his work.

However, the fact is that managers are tempted to grant telecommuting to everyone, rather than assessing whether the candidates' level of autonomy is sufficient to work serenely and effectively remotely. This can have a boomerang effect! The manager subsequently realizes that they should never have allowed an employee to telecommute: insufficient autonomy, observed abuses, lack of exemplarity towards the rest of the team... and a rollback (often very poorly received by the person concerned) must then be considered. In other cases, the employee, having overestimated their ability to work autonomously without support from their manager and team, finds themselves struggling and isolated at home. A situation that can be avoided if one knows how to say "no" in a timely manner.

Today, telecommuting is often perceived as a right or a social benefit. It is also common, in the case of a company headquarters relocation, to see the management offer telecommuting to its employees to "compensate" for the longer commuting time. Telecommuting then becomes a tool for retaining employees, and the key criterion of autonomy disappears.

Telecommuting, a risk of undermining the team

Another risk associated with telecommuting is to lose the connection with the team. Practiced in "high doses" (i.e., 2 days a week or more), telecommuting can generate a "empty offices" effect and erode team spirit and the sense of belonging to the same company. Telecommuting can thus impair the ability to collaborate but also to innovate within teams: no more encounters, no more exchange of ideas, much less value created for the company... In this type of situation, collaboration and communication tools, used appropriately, can play an important role in recreating connections.

Contrary to popular belief (telecommuting = easy day), the telecommuter can become a true "work addict": forgetting lunch breaks, resuming work after dinner, unable to mentally disconnect from work in the evening... Yet it is essential to impose breaks during the day and to establish a clear separation between personal and professional life.

A new role to apprehend for the manager

The manager may have difficulty engaging in the complex task of remote management: it is necessary to strike a balance between flexibility and firmness, and to learn to support remote employees, both those who do not provide visibility on their work, and those who overcommunicate.

When managers have not been involved upstream on the subject, the key success factors of telecommuting, namely trust and letting go, are met with often misunderstood arbitrary decisions: no telecommuting on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays; 1 telecommuting day every 2 weeks maximum, request for reporting at the end of each telecommuting day, etc.

Telecommuting, a great opportunity... to be framed

One thing is certain, telecommuting largely contributes to the transformation of our organizational and management methods, in parallel with other underlying trends: transition to open and shared spaces (Flex Office), development of third-party workspaces and coworking spaces, growing interest of companies in the well-being of their employees...

But for telecommuting deployment to be successful, it is essential to secure certain points:

  • Engage top management from the outset of telecommuting implementation, by raising awareness of the importance of managerial trust and team empowerment;
  • Co-build operating rules regarding the implementation of telecommuting within the team and communicate them in advance, even if they need to be relaxed later;
  • Implement a clear telecommuting access process to avoid abuses and protect the work collective;
  • Maximize the use of collaboration and remote communication tools provided by the company to maintain team connections and innovation capabilities.

In any case, all these changes in work organization, surrounding spaces, and mobility, are moving towards a greater granted freedom and the establishment of fluidity in human relations. All this should work towards the liberation of collective intelligence.