Who gets more done — office workers or telecommuters?

Despite the growing popularity of telecommuting among workers with in-demand skills, some managers just don't trust employees to get work done at home. An economist who studies the productivity of telecommuters says attitudes toward remote workers affect everything — including the output of colleagues back in the office.

Despite growing popularity of telecommuting, some managers don't trust employees to be productive at home

Companies who embrace telecommuting say offering that flexibility is an important part of retaining top talent, but some managers still question whether staff can be trusted to work well outside the office. (Looker_Studio/Shutterstock)

In a tight labour market, workers with in-demand skills may have the leverage they need to snag coveted telecommuting privileges. But seasoned remote workers and an economist who studies productivity said there's still a negative perception that stands in the way of making those arrangements happen.

Glenn Dutcher, an assistant professor of economics at Ohio University, studies the impact of telecommuting on productivity. He and his research colleagues have found that many people still doubt that remote workers get as much done at home as they would in an office environment.

In an experiment that explored how telecommuting affects groups where some employees work in the office and others work from home, Dutcher found that productivity of the whole team hinges on whether office-based workers think their remote colleagues are getting things done.  

"The results were pretty consistent. However we looked at it, we found that if they believed that telecommuters were less productive, then they contributed less work themselves," said Dutcher.

Conversely, if those same subjects trusted their remote colleagues were hard at work, then they worked hard, too.

Glenn Dutcher, assistant professor at Ohio University's department of economics, found that workers perform better on creative tasks when allowed to complete them outside of an office environment. (Suppled by Glenn Dutcher)

Answering the question of whether telecommuting affects team output is critical, the study authors said. Despite mounting evidence in favour of telecommuting — from better employee retention to lower costs for office space — managers still have reservations about allowing employees to work outside the office.

Subtracting the commute

That's a missed opportunity, said Aiman Attar, who has worked from home for 16 years both for herself and others. She now employs three home-based full-time staffers for her real estate recruiting business AgentC, as well as a number of regular contractors.

Attar said she gets more from her staff, not less, by letting them avoid a time-consuming commute.

"They're not coming into work stressed from driving, traffic, weather, accidents on the road," said Attar. "You get up, you can take your morning walk, have your shower or your breakfast, and then sit at your desk. The time that you save allows you to do more productive things with yourself. You can spend it on eating healthy; you can spend it on working out."

She said it's a mistake to let trust issues get in the way of letting good candidates work from home. "You can't go into a relationship with that kind of negative mindset. You don't go into a marriage saying, 'How do I know they're not going to cheat?'" 

Instead of "nickel and diming" staff on exactly the number of minutes they're at their desks each day, she focuses on output.

"As long as results are coming, work is getting done, we're meeting our deadlines and our targets, it really doesn't matter to us if they work five hours or eight hours … We just want to make sure our timelines for our clients are being delivered."

People stand at the water cooler chatting for an hour. If you expect that someone is going to be productive eight hours of the day, you're wrong.- Aiman Attar, recruiter

Plus, it would be a mistake for managers to assume they're getting a full eight hours each day from employees in their line of sight at the office, she said.

"People stand at the water cooler chatting for an hour. If you expect that someone is going to be productive eight hours of the day, you're wrong; it's never going to happen in any environment."

Dutcher said that a trusting attitude toward remote workers goes a long way. "Managers have a great deal of influence over the perception of the workers that are working under them." Influence that perception of remote workers positively and team productivity won't be negatively affected, he said

Some tasks better completed away from the cubicle

In an earlier study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Dutcher and his colleagues found that some tasks are better suited to telecommuting than others.

This experiment found that so-called dull tasks — in this case, entering lines of numbers and letters into a computer — were better suited to office environments, said Dutcher. Subjects who were allowed to complete this task from anywhere they chose were less productive than those in the office, perhaps because — when faced with a mind-numbing task —folding a load of laundry starts to look pretty good.

But when it came to the experiment's creative tasks — coming up with lists of alternate uses for everyday objects — these same workers performed better when given the opportunity to get away from the cubicle, Dutcher said.

Given that many employees do a mix of office and remote work, he said, "it probably makes a lot of sense to do the creative work at home and the more mundane boring tasks in the office."

That fits with Wayne Cuervo's experience working for tech giant Cisco for 16 years, where "there's a culture of empowerment" around letting staff work from anywhere. He said that stems in part from the need to connect with colleagues around the globe.

"If I have to crank through some PowerPoints, that fits very naturally to staying home and getting it done without interruptions. And sometimes you need to work in a collaborative environment and allow the brainstorming and the in-person interactions to facilitate decisions, or to feed off each other's energies."

Sometimes top talent, just like all of us, need to be at home to let the cable guy in.- Wayne Cuervo, Director of Cisco Canada's Toronto Innovation Centre

Cuervo, now director of Cisco Canada's Toronto Innovation Centre, said things like high-quality video conferencing enables efficient and effective collaboration from anywhere.

Plus, there's an important element of humanity in making it possible for in-demand workers to work from home on days that life demands it without anyone questioning their work ethic.

"It's all about attracting and keeping top talent. And sometimes top talent, just like all of us, need to be at home to let the cable guy in."