When Geralyn Krist, CMP, CTA, put in a request to start working from home in 2008, she’d been in convention sales with Visit KC for six years. She was successful as a national accounts manager, and enjoyed the office environment. But her two young daughters had just been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, and Krist wanted more flexibility in her schedule. Convinced she could reduce her stress and work more productively anchored at home, she approached management with a plan in her pocket and a lump in her throat. “I love my job,” she recalled saying, “but I just can’t do it like this anymore.”
Krist didn’t realize then the extent to which she was part of a growing movement. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of work-from-home (WFH) employees in the United States grew by 103 percent, according to the research-focused consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), which based its assessment on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. About 45 percent of jobs in the U.S. workforce are compatible with teleworking at least part of the time, GWA found. And although 80 to 90 percent of U.S. workers say they’d like to telework at least part time, only 20 to 25 percent do. According to Gallup, U.S. workers telecommute from home an average of two days a month; about 9 percent do so more than 10 days a month.
With companies finding quality-of-life issues on the forefront of employee priorities, teleworking remains squarely on the radar of desirable arrangements for salaried workers. In fact, a frequent comment voiced by meeting planners responding to Convene’s 2016 Salary Survey was that they wished they were allowed to work from home more often.
A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found a greater increase in the number of companies planning to offer telecommuting than just about any other new benefit. Dell, for one, is in the midst of a six-year plan that includes getting half of its employees to work remotely at least part of the time by 2020 — one piece of a larger “Legacy of Good” strategy that aims to reduce the company’s expenses and impact on the environment while attracting and keeping the best talent. Analysts say policies like Dell’s are more representative of workplace trends than Yahoo’s much-publicized clampdown on telecommuting in 2013. (“Not what’s right for Yahoo right now,” CEO Marissa Mayer said in a corporate statement.)
“This trend is driven by a combination of technology, traffic, and work-life balance,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor of economics who specializes in workplace policy. “All these factors will continue, so WFH is likely to continue growing for the indefinite future.”
‘THREE HOURS OF COMMUTING TIME’
The terms “teleworking” and “telecommuting” are used interchangeably these days, but they were coined in 1973 by NASA physicist and information-technology consultant Jack Nilles with a subtle distinction. Telework is the broader term for the use of technology to work flexibly from alternative locations. Telecommuting is substituting technology for commuter travel. So someone working from home for a few hours to wait for the cable guy or go to a doctor’s appointment before heading into the office in the afternoon isn’t telecommuting, per se, because the commute isn’t replaced — just rescheduled.
Some jobs by their nature are more compatible with working remotely than others, including many positions in the meetings industry, where people already spend so much time on the road that they telework by default. According to the Telework Research Network, a division of GWA, the typical telecommuter is a 49-year-old, college-educated, salaried, non-union employee in a management or professional role, earning $58,000 a year at a company with more than 100 employees. More than 75 percent of employees who work from home earn more than $65,000 per year, putting them in the upper-80th percentile relative to all employees. And while telework can “contribute to work-life balance for those with caregiving responsibilities,” according to a 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study by workplace analysts Mary Noonan and Jennifer Glass, remote employees are not significantly more likely to be female or have children.
Karen Malone, vice president of meetings and sales for the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), remembers the “aha” moment that led her to change the way she structured her work life: pursuing a telework arrangement so she could create her “dream lake house” in Knoxville, Tennessee. “One day I was on the phone in the Chicago office for eight hours straight, door closed, on conference calls all day long with no face-to-face meetings,” Malone said. “And I thought to myself, What an idiot I am. I could have done this from a home office. Why did I waste three hours of commuting time when I could have done this from anywhere?”
“I really do think it’s going to be the trend of our industry’s future for salespeople,” said Patty Phelps, partner and vice president of sales at ACCESS Destination Services in Texas, whose 20-person office includes six people who work some combination of time from home, including two salespeople who negotiated full-time WFH after maternity leave. “We set them up with a laptop and a portal, so they’re always online with us. And their numbers went higher than they ever were in the office.”
FOCUS, SAVINGS, AND OTHER BENEFITS
A number of factors have made telework increasingly common, and increasingly easy. Advances in everyday technology — laptops, cellphones, videoconferencing, webcasts, instant messaging, cloud-based servers — have provided communication tools accessible to a wide range of professionals. Meanwhile, intensifying traffic across the country, and not just in major urban areas, is sapping both the productive time and the personal time of commuting workers. And the number of households in which both parents work has risen, from 40 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 2012, creating a work-life crunch for those struggling with family obligations. Some companies offer flexibility in work locations — a few days from home, a few days in the office — as a perk. But the truth is, it’s not just a perk for the employee. The company benefits as well.
To test theories about the costs and benefits of telecommuting, Stanford’s Bloom partnered with China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip. About half of the 250 workers at Ctrip volunteered to work from home for nine months. At the end of the study period, the remote workers were found to be 13 percent more productive than their in-office counterparts, to be generally happier (quitting rates were cut in half), and to have saved the company the equivalent of $2,000 per employee annually. In the United States, the typical employer saves more like $11,000 per teleworking employee, according to GWA. Indeed, when Sun Microsystems assessed the financial impact of its 15-year telecommuting program, which allows 56 percent of its 19,000 employees to work remotely at least one day a week, the company found it saved $64 million annually on real estate and $2.5 million in electric bills.
“Companies are reinventing their footprint around it rather than wasting real-estate space, with remote workers using the headquarters as drop-in space rather than assigned desks,” said Kate Lister, president of GWA. “Office spaces are being reduced and redesigned as places of collaboration for when you come in, and home is the place for concentration. When companies look around and see how often employees are actually at their desk, studies show they aren’t there 50 to 60 percent of the time. Whether or not working remotely is considered a perk, it’s already happening. If as a company you’re not changing your footprint and saving on real estate, you’re leaving a lot on the table.”
Employees see cost benefits, too, to the tune of $2,000 to $7,000 a year, a figure adjusted to take into consideration increased home-electricity bills. The savings represent mass transit and parking, gas (2.9 million commuters save nearly 390 million gallons a year), as well as food (lunches bought out) and personal costs like buying professional clothes and dry-cleaning bills.
But the greatest benefits to employees are often difficult to quantify. Flexibility to work from home means greater ease in making doctor’s appointments, dropping off and picking up the kids at school, and maybe even seeing them perform in a midday assembly. It can make a world of career difference to someone with a disability, or who needs to move away for a spouse’s job.
For Erica Serbin, who works remotely for Kenes Group, an international conference organizer, that flexibility has been critical to her role as business development manager for North America. Based in South Carolina with three young children, she lives many time zones away from the company’s offices in Geneva, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv. “Working globally is even a better fit working from home,” Serbin said. “There can be calls with Singapore at 9 p.m. after the kids go to bed, and I’ve woken at 3 a.m. for a call, because sometimes it’s the only time you can get everyone on the phone.”
Serbin began working for Kenes in Tel Aviv 13 years ago, and left when her husband’s job moved them to the United States. Four years ago, she rejoined the company remotely part-time, but ended up working longer hours than she’d expected. Eventually she accepted the promotion Kenes kept offering, and welcomed back the added responsibility of full-time work, even if — with multiple time zones and a flexible day-into-night schedule — it meant “you’re never going to have an empty email inbox.” For downtime these days, she’s a fan of 10-minute meditations. “Juggling being a mother and having a career, you have to be flexible,” Serbin said. “You can’t really draw the line anywhere. You may not be able to have it all, but if the line is a bit blurry, you can get it all done.”
Plus, getting it all done can be easier without the distraction of colleagues and an office. Almost universally, remote workers rave about their ability to concentrate. “You gain the ability to focus and analyze your data. That’s a luxury, because people in the office are constantly bombarded,” said one financial executive who has worked at her firm for 18 years, remotely for the past eight. “In your own space you have complete silence. Even if you have phone calls and instant messaging, you really can carve that time to look at the data, and it becomes quite powerful, because you’re competing with people who don’t have time to think.”
Visit KC’s Krist agrees. “Being here at home, it’s very quiet, and easy for me to focus and get my work done,” she said. “My productivity definitely increased. My husband works remotely as well, but we’re on different floors and we each do our own thing. I’ll be honest, I’m very bad at sticking to a lunch hour. I usually make lunch and bring it back to my desk to get things done.”
People who study workplace productivity see a creative benefit in working remotely. “There’s a lot of talk about the innovation and creativity of working face-to-face, but it’s just not what research shows,” said GWA’s Lister. “Creativity happens just as much in isolation as in collaboration. We really do need our time to be ourselves. Sometimes we do our best thinking in the shower.”
Of course, every benefit comes with challenges. The intense focus afforded by time, space, and quiet means you have to know when to turn it off — and really do it. Flexibility means you have to police against doing too many household and family things during the day, then staying up half the night to compensate. Even the upside of not having to buy and dry-clean professional clothes can carry a whiff of isolation, creating a psychological pang that you’re no longer that person who daily dresses well and banters with colleagues.
Not being seen every day can have more tangible drawbacks as well. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is 100-percent applicable — meaning that if you don’t make an extra effort to stay in touch and have your work seen, your contributions might not be recognized. In the Ctrip study, remote employees were promoted at half the rate of their in-office colleagues. Whether or not an out-of-office location affects opportunities for advancement, workers are aware of the “otherness” factor. “I sometimes feel judged differently because I’m not seen every day, and wonder if maybe folks are thinking, I never see her, is she even doing anything?” Krist said. “So I do try to be seen by as many people as I can when I’m in the office that one day a week.”
Indeed, it’s important for remote employees to find the right balance between face time and stay-away time. In addition to collaboration and camaraderie, being in the office affords a certain amount of learning. There are things remote employees can absorb from interaction with senior employees, and things they can impart to junior ones. Plus, high productivity isn’t the only thing WFH employees bring to the table. While ACCESS Texas experienced unprecedented sales numbers from two women who continued to work from home after their maternity leave, their absence left a void. “To be honest,” Phelps said, “I missed their leadership in the office.”
When it does come to face time, it’s best to choose days that work best for everyone — remote and in-office employees alike. “My initial plan was to do three days in the office and two at home, but as things have progressed, I’ve found it has to be a bit fluid,” said Kathleen McClemmy, CMP, the on-staff meeting planner for a collection of surgical societies, including the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. She’d worked previously in the office, but left to start a family. When she came back 15 years later, she negotiated a flexible schedule of working from the office and from home.
“There are busy times that I know I need to be in the office more, and there has to be give and take,” McClemmy said. “I’ll switch my schedule up and make it happen. You can’t be black-and-white about it, insisting that you’re home exactly this amount of time. Show you’re willing to give and be flexible, and that you appreciate the arrangement.”
Smart teleworkers — and their managers — are also attuned to a missing stream of information that’s taken for granted in an office environment: visual cues and casual conversation. Eye contact and lack of eye contact, posture, and seating arrangements in meetings all provide information about rapport and pecking order. The same goes for the way people dress, both for professional functions and on casual days. The water cooler may be more metaphor than actual gathering place these days, but the timing of conversations and congratulations that happen organically in an office can be hard to replicate by phone and email. Recreating that balance of communications for a telework environment takes concerted effort.
“I’m the manager, and I don’t think I did a good job at first,” said ACCESS’s Phelps, whose newly remote salespeople initially were lagging, then shot ahead with numbers higher than ever. “I had to appreciate where they were coming from and pump them up on their successes more than before, because when you’re not in the office you don’t get that great positive atmosphere. I had to change my mindset, be aware of where they are, and stay in touch. The communication was off, and now I’m respectful of the timing I need.”
Tips for Teleworking
› Know your strengths and weaknesses before setting up a remote working arrangement. Working from home involves both discipline and isolation. “It takes a lot of focus on both ends — making sure you stay focused, and knowing when to shut it down,” said Kathleen McClemmy, CMP. “I don’t think it’s for everyone.”
Paul Devlin, a New York–based managing director for the political land-use consulting firm Five Corners Strategies, purposely bookends his day with activities anchored in the outside world: coffee out of the apartment first thing in the morning, dinner with friends or hitting the gym in the evening. “I work with partners in Boston, D.C., and San Francisco who are early-morning types and night owls,” Devlin said. “I could be prone to talking to one starting at 7 a.m. and another at midnight. My solution is to leave, come back, and leave again, so work doesn’t bleed into my entire day and night.”
› Set up your A-game environment. Some people are self-motivated and disciplined, and working independently at home comes naturally to them. But if you have to struggle to ignore the dirty dishes, find someplace else to work than the kitchen table. Choose your dedicated office hours based on the time and location that work best for your schedule, and stick to them. “I truly think for the best teleworkers it’s a mindset of total dedication to what you promised to do,” said ACCESS Destination Services’ Patty Phelps. “The successful ones have a talent for turning off whatever’s going on in your house, kind of a tunnel vision for work.”
› Be organized. Make sure you have the right tools with you for days at home and days in the office. “If you move back and forth, doing the home-headquarters split, you can’t be saying, ‘Oh no, I left this important contract at home,’ or be carrying around two huge boxes you don’t need,” McClemmy said. “You need to have all the tools and materials you need to be most productive in whichever location you’re in.”
› Communicate, and communicate more. Don’t be afraid of multiple channels. Write often, and in different ways to suit different purposes: formal email, informal instant messenger, intranet blog postings. If writing doesn’t seem appropriate, then use Skype. Be aware what format will best convey your purpose and your tone. Which also means knowing which format works for sarcasm and emoticons, and which doesn’t — because you might not have the opportunity to know you’ve been misunderstood.
Tips for Managing Teleworkers
› Hire smartly for remote work. Before you negotiate a telework agreement, ask the right questions to increase the likelihood that it’s a good fit. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), for example, has a telecommuting agreement form to be signed by both employee and employer that includes practical details such as the equipment the company will provide and the utilities reimbursed. But it also includes a questionnaire with ample space for write-in answers: “Describe the characteristics and skills that you have that will ensure success.” And: “Describe how you will maintain/enhance communications under this arrangement.”
› Put everyone on video. For meetings that are a mix of in-office and at-home people, try putting everyone on video, not just the remote folks. “Rarely do we put people in a room together for a staff meeting in Chicago,” said HIMSS’s Karen Malone. “There might be 20 to 25 people on a conference call, mixing the in-office and out-of-office staff. Sometimes it’s almost easier for everyone to be on WebEx wherever they are, all focusing on the same screen close up.”
› Manage by results. Don’t micromanage with technology. Set clear goals for remote workers rather than keeping tabs on their time via monitoring software and other heavy-handed methods of checking in. No one wants to work for Big Brother.
› Listen between the lines. A phone call has to carry a lot more functionality for a remote worker than for someone who’s going to see their boss in a few hours, so be aware of the subtext. If you hear the other person typing, that means they’re multitasking, and you don’t have them 100 percent. If there are changes in background sound, they’re likely in transit, squeezing in the call and splitting their focus while moving from one location to another. If there are announcements in the background, it means they’re in the airport, possibly in a rush. “I’ll say, ‘Are you able to sit down for a minute, or do you have to get through security and get back to me?’” said Five Corners Strategies’ Paul Devlin. “A lot of people don’t want to say no to a manager, or they have trouble getting them on the phone, so they’ll take phone calls at times that aren’t good for them.”
Devlin blocks an hour a week for non-agenda phone calls with each of his staff members to talk about anything they want to — project work, a business situation, their personal life. “That’s their hour for whatever they want to talk about,” Devlin said. “Most of the time they talk about a project, but it also gives me time to do coaching and mentoring I like to do but usually happens organically from working in the same location.”
Earn one hour of CEU credit. Once you’ve finished reading this article, read the following material:
› Managing a Remote Workforce: Proven Practices From Successful Leaders, a white paper from The Future of Work, available for free download.
To earn CEU credit, visit pcma.org/convenecmp to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.
The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.