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?”

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  • Tanvi Gautam

    Very interesting article. I liked the sharing of the base line principle (meet or exceed work standard). Research shows that telecommuters actually work harder than than those in office as they feel the need to show that they are contributing. Wonder what your experience has been Maerenn ?
     Also one way to get around the loneliness of virtual work, and being connected to office is to introduce the buddy system so the day you are not at work, some one else can act as your eyes and ears.


    • Maerenn Jepsen

      Hi Tanvi, Thank you for reading the blog and commenting on this post. In response to your question, our most recent survey of people who manage telecommuters showed that 75% felt that the people on their teams who were telecommuting were meeting or exceeding job performance standards. I’d also say that sometimes telecommuters feel that they need to work harder at communicating about their work or at providing more regular status updates on their work in order to keep their manager aware of their performance.  Maerenn JepsenGeneral Mills

      • Tanvi Gautam

        Thanks for your reply. Is the company doing any special training for teams that have telecommuters on them ?

  • BarbaraInMN

    A thoughtful post.  Like many professionals, I have experience with telecommuting and working onsite.  I agree with you that a successful outcome is personality driven and requires deliberate behaviors on both the manager and the telecommuter’s part.  Establishing an internal network is essential whether you work remotely or onsite, so clearly the remote worker has to double their efforts to accomplish this.  Personally, I would never want to go back to a culture of inflexibility.  I find tremendous value in a performance based culture and seek these opportunities over those involving frequent commutes for 2+ hours per day, which in terms of productivity, everyone loses.  Every worker and manager has to sort what works for them and your suggestion of a back-up plan to save the marriage is a good one. 

    • Maerenn Jepsen

      Hi Barbara, 

      Thank you for sharing your personal perspective on experiencing both telecommuting and working on-site. Like you, we’ve learned that employees highly value flexibility and it plays an important role in both job decisions and satisfaction. 

      Maerenn Jepsen
      General Mills

  • Suzanne Pecore

    As a full-time remote employee, I can totally relate to all of these comments. I’ve been chatting with others at GMI about why working remotely works so well for me, and although being an introvert probably helps, I have it down to 3 things: the job itself, where I am in my career, and motivation.

    The job has to lend itself to remote work, and I don’t mean just a desk job. In my case as a Principal Scientist, I need blocks of time to research articles, analyze data, and really dig deep to find those insights. The distraction of back-to-back meetings all day long doesn’t allow for this, and actually pushes “real work” into non-work hours.

    But I couldn’t do this without having “done my time” in the project work back in Mpls to help build experience, project history, and especially, my network. You need a strong network to make things happen at GMI, and that takes face-to-face time. So I’m doubtful a new employee could do my current job from afar.

    And finally, motivation. It’s true that telecommuters still feel the need to over-deliver to ensure they can keep this arrangement, and I’m no exception. (Pasadena in January? Who wouldn’t want this gig?) But it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s also discipline – making the work feel like work, not just sitting out on the patio reading emails. So I have “rules” for myself – starting my workday at 7 am, dressing (no, I don’t lounge around in pajamas), and contributing as fully as possible. In the end, I actually work longer hours (why quit at 3 when I’m deep in my data?) and have had some of the most productive years ever in my 30+ year career.

    So that last comment sums it up…remote work has actually made me more successful.

  • Jim Borek

    I’ve known Suzanne during her entire career at GMI; she has always been an exceptional employee.  Over the most recent years, as a remote employee, Suzanne has surpassed her previous work efforts.  Suzanne has developed several innovative approaches to evaluate sensory responses of sodium reduction in cereal samples.  One approach uses consumers referred to as the Breakfast Club that yield home use liking data captured over the internet.  I submit being remote has allowed Suzanne to think deeper about projects; time we’re supose to have at JFB but tends to get spent on other issues.