The future of the workplace seems to be the home. As telecommuting and remote work policies become standard among today's employers, more and more research has been done about the effects of this increasingly popular perk. While there are clear benefits, there are also unresolved disadvantages researchers don't yet have solutions for.
When Yahoo changed its telecommuting policy and banned the option in 2013, it led to a debate over whether allowing employees to work from outside the office was good for performance, said Ravi Gajendran, a business professor and co-author of a 2014 University of Illinois study on the benefits of commuting.
"At the time, there was a lot of debate about it, but there was very little evidence available," Gajendran said in a statement. "Well, now we have some evidence that says telecommuters are good performers as well as good co-workers on the job."
Telecommuters also make more positive contributions to a workplace's environment, because they want to be seen as "good citizens" of the business in order to justify their flexible work arrangement, the study found. Remote employees feel obligated to go above and beyond to make their work existence more visible and to make themselves known as assets, Gajendran said.
"They almost overcompensate by being extra helpful, because they know in the back of their minds that their special arrangement could easily go away," Gajendran said. "So they give a little extra back to the organization."
However, more recently, corporations that were once extremely supportive of remote work are now requiring employees to return to the office. For example, Quartz reports IBM – a former pioneer of implementing remote work in corporate America – recently called for remote employees in the marketing departments back into physical office spaces. The reason? These companies believe that work has fundamentally changed with the digital revolution, explained Mark McNeilly, a marketing professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.
"The thinking is employees need to physically be there to be more efficient, productive and creative because the nature of the work has changed from being serial – in which you do your part and then hand it off to the next person and then on down the line – to an iterative work model, [where] there are a lot of changes being quickly worked on together within the group," he said.
McNeilly emphasized that many types of work do not require employees to be physically present in the same workspace. For instance, in addition to teaching students in physical classrooms, McNeilly teaches graduate students in an entirely online and remote MBA program (MBA@UNC).
A major concern employers express about remote work is employee productivity. The idea that employees can be easily distracted at home often serves as a barrier for allowing remote work, while employees can face different distractions in a physical office location. For instance, an employee may be tempted to do laundry at home, but at work, it's easy to get caught up in the break room or at the water cooler with colleagues.
Additionally, remote work offers flexibility to help maintain healthy human capital. In a Forbes interview, Werk co-founders Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean said that "flexibility is the future of feminism" because it allows employees, particularly women and gender-nonconforming people, to succeed in their careers while still accommodating their roles as parents and caretakers.
"But you need to have the discipline," McNeilly stressed. If productivity becomes a problem while working remotely, employees can improve their time management skills by using mobile apps or to-do lists and staying organized overall.
McNeilly added that remote work eliminates the need for high real estate costs, especially for locations on the Coast and in major cities.
"Technology has advanced so much," he said. "I don't see why you can't trust people to work at home. A lot of it has to do with the trust of managers and their employees. If there are times where people have to come in, they'll come in."
Additional reporting by Chad Brooks.