76 Percent of Workers Are More Productive When They Do This
October 6, 2015

It turns out a lot of workers believe they can be more productive in their jobs when free from workplace distractions: Constant meetings, co-worker interruptions, office politics, constant birthday parties, micromanagement, backstabbing and the stress and time sink of the daily commute to work.

Who knew, huh?

That’s the finding from a survey by a company called FlexJobs: 76 percent of those responding to an unscientific survey indicated that when they have important work to do, they actually avoid the office. From their report:

Of over 2,600 respondents, 50 percent reported that their home is their location of choice to be most productive on important work-related projects. Another 12 percent said they would choose a coffee shop, coworking space, library, or other place besides the office. Fourteen percent would choose the office but only outside standard hours, leaving less than a quarter who prefer the actual office during regular working hours as a place to complete important work.

Other findings include:

  • 76 percent report they experience fewer interruptions from colleagues while telecommuting.
  • 74 percent report fewer distractions.
  • 71 percent report they experience minimal office politics while telecommuting (It’s still there, kids. You just don’t see it.)
  • 68 percent report reduced stress from telecommuting
  • 65 percent report their telecommuting worksites are more comfortable than the office environment. Yes, house slippers are comfier than heels.

Let Your People Go

FlexJobs also report that 30 percent of respondents would take a 10-20 percent cut in pay if they had more flexible options regarding work time or telecommuting options. 24 percent reported they would be willing to give up vacation time. 18 percent would be willing to give up their 401(k) matching contribution, and a whopping 82 percent of those surveyed report they would be more loyal to their employers,  not less, if they could take advantage of flexible work option.

Obviously, FlexJobs is talking its book with their survey. Their sample was not random, but an opt-in survey skewed towards people with a natural predilection for office work. We think the 76 percent figure is probably quite skewed to the high side, given the survey techniques used. But there is no doubt that workers today do place more and more value on flexible work schedules, telecommuting and similar options, and managers and HR professionals who hope to recruit and retain the best talent will have to grapple with this issue more and more. Younger workers, especially, grew up in a world with ubiquitous WiFi, access to Skype and other mobile conferencing applications, social media and collaborative technology. This plugged-in SmartPhone generation may not see the utility of the traditional workspace at all.

Moreover, the FlexJobs findings comport broadly with other surveys we’ve seen, such as this research from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, which found that 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. workforce says they want to telecommute at least part-time (2-3 days per week). But only about 20-25 percent of the U.S. workforce telecommutes at all to any significant degree.

That’s a lot of pent up demand.

(If they realized that more than 75 percent of employees who work from home earn over $65,000 per year, putting them in the top quintile of income earners overall, there might be even more demand!)

Potential Upside for Employers

Again, citing research from GlobalWorkForceAnalytics.com, allowing workers to telecommute just have the time could save conventional employers as much as $11,000 per year per person, while the telecommuters themselves would save between $2,000 and $7,000 per year.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, Sun Microsystems found that its telecommuting program, involving 19,000 workers, or 56 percent of its work force, actually saved $64 million for the company every year on real estate (they didn’t have to rent space for employees to sit around in), and an additional $2.5 million in utilities costs. The employees themselves saved an average of $2,335 in commuting expenses each year.

More details on Sun Microsystem’s results here. 

How to Make It Work

As workspace communities become more fragmented and distributed, and workers spend less and less time under the direct individual supervision of their boss, it’s important to adjust hiring criteria: Punctuality on trivial matters is less important than discipline. Managers should seek out applicants who can demonstrate that they are disciplined self-starters with solid time management skills. Indeed, employees with initiative, time management skills and focus and who can and do work hard without direct daily supervision are golden.

You need to develop a different kind of manager, too. Future workforces will become nearly impossible to micromanage. Managers can no longer rely on management by walking around, or on techniques designed to intimidate workers into staying on task. Successful managers will not be autocrats, but expert communicators who can give mission-type directives, clearly explain what is required, and who understand the capabilities of each worker and how to employ each worker within his or her capabilities.

Mentorship becomes more challenging. In the past, younger workers had ready access to managers and leaders in their workspaces they could emulate. Senior workers often took promising younger workers under their wing and helped them develop. This was a powerful source of loyalty towards good managers–and consequently to the company. As businesses adopt more flexible models and rely more on telecommuting or even go to relying on independent contractors for more and more of their noncore functions – the so-called “gig economy,” providing this kind of traditional mentorship within the company becomes more difficult. Workers will instead form their own associations with people outside the company, seeking advice and counsel, and may therefore be hired away more easily. Naturally, this can hurt customer relationships, vendor relationships, wreak havoc on your organization’s institutional memory, and stunt employee growth.

Smart HR pros and managers will be on the lookout for ways to disrupt this potentially destructive dynamic and provide junior and middle-level employees with the mentorship, training and feedback they need, while still providing the flexibility and work-life balance they demand.

Naturally, every company, position, and work site is different. Some positions lend themselves more to telecommuting than others, and it’s up to you to manage the different requirements and balance them against performance, customer service, productivity and employee morale.

Other tips to maximize the success of telecommuting efforts in your workplace include:

  • Integrate telecommuting with call forwarding.
  • Restrict the practice to proven workers with solid work ethic or where performance can be easily verified.
  • Be alert to reduced efficiency due to illness, child care necessities, etc. Don’t let telecommuting become a substitute for sick days or personal days.
  • Invest in appropriate collaboration software, applications and other tools. Provide training for employees to use them effectively.
  • Maintain work schedules. Telecommuters should generally be reachable by phone, unless other arrangements are made in advance.
  • Ensure your telecommuters are not left out of corporate or department communications.
  • Create a system to ensure that telecommuters are considered for promotion opportunities as warranted. Otherwise talented invisible employees could be easily overlooked.