Mar 19, 2012 • By

Making telecommuting work

For a lot of people, telecommuting is like a long-distance relationship. It’s great at first, but after awhile … not so much.

At least that’s what Dr. Shawn Long, from the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, has observed in his extensive research on telecommuting.

Here at General Mills’ headquarters in Golden Valley, Minn., an estimated half of employees telecommute either occasionally or routinely, so we turned to Long to learn more about the challenges of this work arrangement and what to do about them.

Long says many full-time telecommuters eventually feel lonely and disconnected from the organization, especially the informal organization. His research suggests that the informal organization is just as powerful, if not more, than the formal organization.

“Just a brief lunch meeting with a colleague may get a person inside information on a job opening, a retirement or those sorts of things that can position a person to position themselves to be promoted within the organization,” explains Long.

The implication? Telecommuters are being laterally promoted rather than vertically promoted.

Telecommuting, then, can be especially problematic for people who are just starting out in their careers, looking to climb the corporate ladder. Long has found that telecommuting appears to be more problematic for extroverts and people who need immediate and constant feedback, as well.

“I believe that there needs to be some assessment to look at a person’s proclivity to work virtually. I think there are some personality tests, there are some personality assessments that could give one more guidance in terms of who is more likely to be successful and effective in working virtually versus those who are not.”

Denise Silva manages the flexible work arrangements at General Mills. She says telecommuting arrangements are determined case-by-case, and that in order for them to work, certain guiding principles must be met.

For example, an employee must meet or exceed business needs.

Denise says telecommuting is key to retaining and attracting great talent to the company. Plus, it makes good business sense.

“There is a lot of research that we looked at that shows flexibility can do a lot of good things for your business. It can increase team performance, productivity and job performance. It can increase engagement. It can decrease costs, depending on what arrangements people are using.”

General Mills offers many tools to help employees who work from home thrive, such as a telecommuters group and an online network for telecommuters.

Long is currently researching the other half of the telecommuting couple—the manager. He is exploring what they can do to help telecommuting be successful.

“Managers being more deliberate about inclusion, more deliberate about integrating ideas, more deliberate about parity amongst all workers, I think are good steps,” says Long.

Despite the tools for telecommuters and efforts by managers, sometimes things just don’t work out. So if telecommuting really is like a long-distance relationship, how does the love story end?

“It is important for employees to have some sort of exit plan. If they are not satisfied working virtually, can they re-emerge or re-integrate themselves back into a face-to-face environment?”