Organizations have had a tough time coming to grips with telecommuting. Most recently, the issue arose when Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, mandated that her company would discontinue its telecommuting program. The irony of this story is two-fold. First, Yahoo is a company whose products and services could benefit greatly from expanding the telecommuting market. Second, many telecommuting programs benefit new parents who seek to balance work. Mayer herself is a new parent. Would this have been such a large story if these ironies didn't exist? I don't think so. But we shouldn't forget the larger issues surrounding telecommuting.
According to Yahoo, corporate presence is required for face-to-face collaboration, fostering innovation and increasing productivity. We don't know how true that statement is, but studies have shown that, overall, this may not be the case.
Management Research Review, an academic journal that I edit, recently published three articles with various findings of telecommuting and telework. First, organizations will attract employees with flexible schedules, which telecommuting offers. Larger employee pools typically mean better workers. Second, organizations are lagging in implementation of telecommuting because of a lack of established contractual frameworks and a limited telecommuting culture. Third, in a very broad study of literature through a research technique called meta-analysis, "telework is perceived to increase productivity, secure retention, strengthen organizational commitment, and … improve performance ..."
The business and economic benefits are clear, and there are also costs and concerns, some of which may have been observed in Yahoo's work environment.
Telecommuting is good for the environment. A typical organization's largest environmental footprint, especially energy use and pollution emissions, can be traced to its employees' travel to and from work.
The EPA listed employee commutes as a "Scope 3" greenhouse gas emissions. Having served on Clark University's sustainability task force, I realize that many universities are seeking to lessen their carbon footprints, with student, faculty and staff commuting a big focus. Telecommuting has been a strategy to help some organizations achieve carbon neutrality.
Even partial telecommuting can reduce traffic congestion. Less congestion also reduces lost productivity time, wasted fuel, the number of accidents, and lessens road damage, which all have environmental and economic benefits.
Thus, not only can telecommuting save money, it also conserves energy and reduces greenhouse has emissions. Yet, only about 4 percent of U.S. private-sector workers actually work from home. Given Yahoo's — and since the Yahoo announcement, Best Buy's — efforts to cut back on telework and telecommuting, this is not a surprising number.
With the social benefits of telecommuting, Yahoo and other like-minded organizations need to carefully examine setting thoughtful, socially responsible corporate practices. Eliminating telecommuting sets back corporate work practices by decades. n
Joseph Sarkis is a professor of management in Clark University's Graduate School of Management. His most recent book is an edited volume, "Green Growth: Managing the Transition to a Sustainable Economy."
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