By Judit Price
The number of people who telecommute for work has grown dramatically. A number of studies have confirmed the benefits of allowing employees to better integrate work and family, as well as save money for employers. But very little is available regarding the long-term costs and benefits to the employer, as well as the effect on career growth for an employee who can be productive, but largely invisible.
New data suggests telecommuting makes it harder for people to interact informally in ways that promote information sharing, new ideas and responsiveness to the challenges every organization faces. As a career counselor, I have to wonder what does it mean when a productive employee is not around to provide input on percolating ideas, or not available to help put out the "fires" that can occur.
Clients who telecommute frequently complain about their inability to maintain visibility. The demands of the job, whether requiring significant travel to customers, or primarily solo work that can be easily managed over the Internet, can present challenges for career growth. The fact is, "out of sight is out of mind" can be real. In a competitive work environment, knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time can make a difference.
There is impact on the team as well. The point is valid in business, where an organization of committed, dedicated people, working together and willing to take measured risk, can and frequently does overcome substantial barriers and emerges victorious over competitors who have bigger organizations, far more resources and better funding.
The reason is obvious. A cohesive team in which each member gives just a little bit more, and where an open and trusting environment encourages risk, and where rewards are distributed in a fair and honest manner, can win. Conversely, a group that does not work well together, where each member only does what is expected, and where rewards are perceived as being based less on performance and more on other factors, is an organization in potential trouble.
In my view, too many companies are designing organizations and instituting policies in the name of efficiency that actually place themselves at risk. And when the organization is at risk, employees are at risk. A staff of telecommuters and long-distance employees can reduce the productivity of an organization in the long run, even while saving some money in the short run. The result could have a negative long-term career influence.
There are certainly cost savings in office space and associated carrying costs. Availability of expert resources over long distances is enhanced. In addition, where firms invest in diverse geographies, the ability of employees throughout those geographies to share information efficiently is definitely a benefit. Nevertheless, there is that downside.
In an organization, common purpose and mutual trust are important. When the team and the firm are distant from one another, and when team members are dispersed over a wide geography, something is definitely lost. This is especially true in a crisis. I recommend a much harder look at the ideas of team cohesion and mutual trust as significant contributors to effectiveness, in which creative efficiency contributes to cost containment as well.
The need to meet deadlines with increasingly limited support represents a cost in effectiveness, morale and team cohesion and trust building. Firms are very dependent on the performance of their employees, something that's well understood. What is less well understood is the importance of the interaction, the synergy, generated by groups of people who come together with a common vision, a set of goals and the determination to cooperatively work toward success.
The pressure to produce in an increasingly resource-limited workplace can exact a toll. Employees become risk-averse. They are reluctant to point out problems that should be addressed, for fear of being branded a troublemaker. Having been downsized once -- and who hasn't -- the fear of being downsized again is palpable.
As a result, there is too much of a tendency to focus narrowly on the job, to hold information rather than share it, and to build fences. Personal contact can help alleviate this. Informal contact, ad-hoc meetings and creative responses to high pressure within a community setting can reduce the stress that a solitary work environment can foster.
It is ironic that team compatibility is a major factor in the hiring process. Yet too often, this compatibility turns out to be do what you are told and don't complain. Too often, the team for which your compatibility is considered a critical success factor simply doesn't exist in the real world.
So what does this mean for you? It means be especially cautious. Look carefully where you are applying for a position. Do your best to find an employer in which you not only find meaningful work, but a culture and environment in which the organization can provide a platform for stronger interaction that will provide all the opportunity to shine in a community.
Judit Price is a masters-level career guidance counselor, certified career master, international job transition coach and a career development facilitator. She is also a principal at Berke and Price Associates, Skills for Career Services, in Chelmsford. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.