The 5 Bummers of Telecommuting

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NoteDeath to the office! Long live the telecommuter! 

Or something.

As we all know, telecommuting is fast becoming the new norm: according to data compiled by Ken Hess for ZDNet, 24 percent of American employees (a 20 percent increase from 2012) already do some of their work from home, and 90 percent of U.S. employers say they’re providing or expanding telework options for their employees.

People seem to like it this way: 79 percent of U.S. workers want to telecommute at least part-time, and 83 percent of them say flexible work options would make them more loyal to their employers.

Employers reap benefits from telecommuting as well: Hess mentions that telecommuters are 11-20 percent more productive than their office counterparts when working on creative tasks (but not repetitive ones). Hess also notes that employers can save up $11,000 per employee per year via telecommuting (the savings come from reduced costs of the “furnishings, maintenance, parking, and phone services” that come with traditional office arrangements).

But is telecommuting all it’s cracked up to be? Some high profile companies don’t think so — remember when Yahoo cut telecommuting in an effort to boost creativity and save its flailing self? Over at New York Magazine, writer Jennifer Senior shares a pretty gorgeous ode on the traditional office called “To the Office, With Love” that asks, “What do we give up when we all become freedom-seeking, self-determining, autonomous entrepreneurs?” The answer, according to Senior, is “A lot, actually.”

I’m sort of stuck in the middle: I telecommute part-time, and I love it — for the most part. Having a flexible schedule means I can maintain a better work-life balance, which translates into more satisfaction with my job, which makes me more invested in the company I work for, which means I actively strive to put in the best work I can. As I’m sure many of you can attest, it’s hard to give your strongest efforts to a company you’re not invested in. And so, in a lot of ways, I think telecommuting is why I do great work for my employer.

But at the same time, I’ve also noticed that telecommuting has its own drawbacks. And because I like to be a contrarian (too much pro-telecommuting talk going on these days), I’ve decided to share what I feel are the five biggest drawbacks to telecommuting — the reasons why I’m not totally cool with the office’s predicted death.

1. Isolation

This is, in my opinion, the biggest bummer of telecommuting. I work in an open office, so on the days that I come in, I’m used to a vibrant and positive communal environment. This makes the workplace a warm and inviting place, a place where I feel comfortable and confident.

Contrast this with a day of telecommuting, where my only companions are a particularly needy cat and maybe some strangers at the local Starbucks, if I’m feeling gregarious. It gets lonely.

2. Distraction

You think the office is bad? Try working in a place that houses your bed, television, books, kitchen, video game consoles, etc., etc.

And if you go to a cafe to avoid the distractions? You don’t know who Chris and Kim are, but you’ll become heavily invested in the details of their sordid break-up, via the gossipy couple sitting a table away.

3. Communication Breakdown

The Internet is a wonderful thing. With email, chat clients, and social media platforms, we can reach everyone we need to reach whenever we need to reach them.

Except, of course, when you most need them. Then it seems like they’ve shut down their computers for the day.

(I know I’m over-exaggerating — for the most part, I can send an email to any of my coworkers and get an answer in five minutes. But the few times you can’t get in touch with them? My God is that frustrating.)

4. Creativity Stoppages

As mentioned above, people tend to work better on creative tasks when they telecommute. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way.

In an office, it’s easy to turn to your coworkers when you need to bounce ideas off of someone and get your stalled engine going again. The cat, it turns out, is not a great sounding board. (He also has a tendency to mistake your laptop for the most comfortable pillow in the house).

5. Environmental Weirdness 

We associate the office with work; ergo, when we’re in the office, we’re fully prepped to work. But we don’t associate the home with work, which can sometimes make it difficult to start the day. Even a dedicated home office won’t necessarily solve this — it is still a part of the home, after all.

I find that, once you get over the initial cognitive hump of starting your workday at home, the rest of the day goes by fairly smoothly, in terms of “environmental weirdness.” But that hump can be hard to overcome on some days.

Don’t take this post as an anti-telecommuting screed: the data demonstrates that telecommuting does offer solid benefits to employers and employees alike, and as I said above, I love having the flexibility to work from home part-time.

But “part-time” is the operative phrase: telecommuting and office work both offer their own benefits, and I think the best way to take advantage of them is to work flexibly: in the office some days, at home on other days. This gives us the best of both worlds.

By Matthew Kosinski