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Telecommuting: Should Your Company Make it Permanent?

image for nensuria / Getty Images
nensuria / Getty Images
  • Nearly six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are thinking about whether they will return to an office.
  • Telecommuting has proven to save money, boost morale and enhance the quality of life for many workers.
  • It's important to analyze how much money you'll save, what has and hasn't worked, and how your employees feel before making a decision.
  • This article is for business owners whose teams have been working from home and are now wondering if they should make telecommuting a permanent arrangement.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced countless companies to shift to a work-at-home model, relying on a hodgepodge of apps and software to keep employees connected. Now almost six months into telecommuting, businesses are questioning whether they should return to their offices or make telecommuting permanent. Like most business decisions, it depends on what your company needs.

Most businesses had little time to prepare for a work-from-home model as states across the country instituted shelter-in-place orders in the early days of the pandemic. [Looking for more information on how the pandemic is impacting small businesses? Check out our COVID-19 Resources hub.]

Business owners used to having oversight of their employees and fostering in-person collaboration had to turn to technology seemingly overnight. Applications like Zoom and Slack quickly became necessary tools for employees worldwide. Some companies are flourishing in this new world of remote workers, while others are struggling.

Now, with restrictions eased or lifted in many states, business owners are deciding if they should make at-home work permanent. This is a heavy decision with a lot of factors to consider.

"The first step is to look back over the last five or six months and do a deep assessment of how work has been," Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, told Business News Daily. "Be really honest about what really works well and what are the pain points."

Key takeaway: Small business owners were forced to embrace remote work as the pandemic raged. Before they can make it permanent, they have to assess what worked and what didn't.

Telecommuting can mean different things to different businesses, but in general, it means that employees work at home, relying on email, video conferencing, messaging apps and the internet to do their jobs. As of June, 42% of the U.S. workforce was working from home, according to research from Stanford University. Even before COVID-19, the trend of working from home was growing.

To make an informed decision about what's best for your business, you should survey your employees about their job satisfaction and pore over your books. These are some questions to consider before you decide whether to return to the office.

The key to a productive and happy remote workforce is the managers who embrace remote work. That's why it's important to gauge how managers performed during the pandemic and how they feel about working remotely in the future.

"You want to know how they've interacted with their teams, [and if they are] setting them up for success working remotely," said Reynolds.

You also want to learn what's been working for employees and what problems they face. Has working from home increased or lowered their productivity? Have they overcome telecommuting challenges, or are those difficulties game-stoppers?

"It can help you gauge how it would work long term if you really put some focus on training the managers so they feel comfortable," said Reynolds. "While all of this was happening in the middle of a pandemic, some grace was extended, given the added stress, confusion, and lack of focus companies and individuals experienced."

Business owners and managers are one half of the equation; their direct reports are the other. The employees are the ones who handle the daily tasks and know what they need to do their jobs. When surveying your employees about telework, ask them if they prefer working from home, if they can do their job the same from home, and whether they feel demoralized or happy. Did shaving the commute off their schedule boost their productivity? Were they able to stay focused despite potential distractions at home?

"The nice thing about this is it doesn't have to lead to 100% remote work forever," said Reynolds. "It could be a hybrid solution."

Businesses operate to make money, so the more costs you can cut without losing productivity or morale, the better – particularly during the pandemic. That's why small business owners must ask themselves if telecommuting saves them enough money to be worthwhile when it's not required.

"If you removed the office from your expenses, how big of an impact would it have?" said Reynolds. "For some companies, that could be massive. If that's the case, where do the funds go?"

Key takeaway: If working remotely means you'll save money, and your employees are on board and can perform at the same level as if they were in the office, it's time to give it serious thought as a permanent arrangement.

According to Moe Vela, a board member for TransparentBusiness, which makes remote workforce monitoring software, large business owners save about $11,000 per employee annually from shifting to a remote workforce. While that's likely less for small businesses, it's still serious savings. The reduction in expenses comes from various avenues. Office space rent, equipment, furniture, utilities and supplies can all be big money-sappers for small businesses.

Low employee morale is a big drag on productivity, reducing output and increasing absenteeism. There's a lot of reasons employees may be unhappy, but a big one is balancing work and life. That is made easier if an employee doesn't have to spend hours commuting to work or can avoid getting stressed out from sitting in traffic. Before remote work was widely mandatory, many employers shied away from it because they thought productivity would suffer. The reverse has proven true: Remote workers are more productive overall than in-office ones.  

A big knock on remote work is that employees are siloed in their homes rather than collaborating and communicating with others on their team. That may have been the case before Zoom, Slack and other video conferencing software, but thanks to technology, the shift to telecommuting during the pandemic hasn't killed collaboration.

In a recent survey of remote workers by national staffing company Robert Half, 20% of respondents said they have stronger relationships with co-workers now. Parents working from home were three times more likely to develop deeper relationships with co-workers. Robert Half also found that 63% of participants realize their job is doable outside of a physical office, 60% say their work-life balance has improved by losing the commute, and 43% are more comfortable using technology. If your employees fall into those camps, permanent telecommuting should be a serious consideration.

Businesses, particularly smaller ones, have long had trouble recruiting and retaining top talent. They are beholden to the location where they operate, which limits the pool of talent they have to draw from. That challenge tends to go away when you have a remote workforce. After all, you can hire people across the country – or even the globe – when a physical office is out of the equation. It also means your business can hire people with disabilities who can't get to a physical office, single parents who are juggling families and work, and those who can't afford a car, train or bus to get to work.

At Buffalo-based tech consulting firm TxMQ, the transition to a fully remote work environment wasn't too difficult, given that many of the staff were already telecommuting. But without a clear idea of how long workers will be out of the office, TxMQ is changing its approach to hiring. Mentoring junior staff isn't as easy over a video conference, which is why Fried has opted to hire more senior-level employees.

"Normally we would consider engineers with less than five years' experience, but [we] are more hesitant to do so currently," said Chuck Fried, president and CEO of TxMQ.

While training might be harder with a remote workforce, the wider talent pool offsets this concern somewhat, as you can expand your search for someone who meets your high criteria.

Key takeaway: There are a lot of benefits to staying remote that can boost your bottom line, such as curbing your overhead costs and improving your employees' productivity.

A potential negative about working from is that the line between work and home life can blur if you aren't careful. Distractions and family responsibilities abound at home, which could hurt productivity.

One of the big knocks on remote workforces has always been collaboration. Sure, there are Zoom meetings, virtual happy hours and instant messaging, but sometimes that face-to-face interaction is critical. A lack of collaboration can lead to redundant work, mistakes, and feelings of isolation, which could impact morale and productivity. It's particularly true if you have a lot of young or single people in the office, whose social lives are attached to their jobs. It's likely why PWC found in a recent survey that 50% of workers go into the office when possible.

Working at home invites a lot of distractions into employees' lives, whether it's the laundry that is begging to be done or the nosy neighbor who tends to stop by at the worst time – not to mention the children doing remote learning in the next room. For employees who can't shut out the noise, telecommuting may be tough. You don't want distractions to impact the quality of the work, which ultimately hurts the bottom line.

Many business owners are reluctant to have staff work at home because they like the idea of stopping by an employee's office to check in on the progress or taking a stroll through the office to ensure the work is getting done. The thought of giving employees autonomy can be a hard pill for some business owners to swallow – particularly the ones who are suspicious of technology and used to being in control, knowing what employees are doing all day. Sure, they can install employee monitoring software, but turning into a digital big brother could hurt morale.

Key takeaway: A business can only be successful with a remote workforce if morale stays high and productivity doesn't suffer.

There isn't one set of rules for business owners to follow when deciding to make telecommuting permanent. But if they check off most of the pro boxes and only a few of the cons, it could be the best way to go.

"There are some challenges (with working from home), but they aren't insurmountable," said Vela. If remote work is "good enough for Facebook, Twitter and Google, it's good enough for every small business."

Donna Fuscaldo

A lifetime New Yorker, I am a veteran finance and business journalist that has contributed to several national media outlets including Forbes, Investopedia, and Bankrate.com. I have spent my career providing consumers and business owners with advice and guidance to help them navigate the world of finance. As a senior finance writer, I report on all aspects of finance from managing cash flow to choosing the best accounting software.