Whither telecommuting? With gas over $4 and talk of the “war for talent,” business magazines said that companies previously unwilling to endorse telecommuting had found it necessary to compete for top talent. Then the market fell, layoffs began, fuel costs dropped, and job seekers were everywhere.
Some telecommuters have begun to make an effort to get into the office more often. Visibility offers some protection against layoffs. Some companies are folding their telecommuting programs. When so few people are left, why not insist that they spend their time where their work habits can be observed?
Across just a few years of the rise and fall of the economy I watched one company discourage telecommuting, then embrace telecommuting, then demand telecommuters return to the office, then require new employees to work from home.
The ambivalence isn’t surprising. Telecommuting requires management by objectives, results-based management. That requires management talent, trust, and faith in people. That confidence in one’s own skills and one’s people isn’t easy in the best of times and it falters when the economy turns bleak.
But hard times bring new reasons to embrace telecommuting. As Workforce Management explains, telecommuting can save real estate costs. It can save great employees, too. Layoffs force companies to load extra work onto the top employees who will be critical to business success when the economy turns around. Permitting them to telecommute demonstrates trust and improves work/life balance, providing a tool for employee retention when raises and bonuses are scarce. Telecommuters tend to give the saved commuting time their employers, too, spending more time working from home than they did in the office.
Business may be ambivalent about telecommuting just now but the economy will turn. Employees who find themselves driving the freeway and sitting in a cubicle again should keep their home offices dusted and ready. They’ll be back.