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According to a study done by Stanford University, 10 percent of the American workforce currently telecommutes at least one day a week. While some fields have traditionally eschewed the working-from-home model, others, such as those in high-tech industries or e-commerce, have touted this flexibility as a plus, enabling them to attract the best and the brightest and also promote loyalty and creativity among their workers. Yahoo recently struck a death blow to this work-life model with the instatement of a working-from-home ban.
Other companies, once considered progressive and forward thinking, have followed suit, though for some the jury is still out on how their bottom line and employee morale will be affected. Who are the losers and winners when employees work from home? And just as importantly, how does it affect the health of the American family?
A Stingy Beginning
For workers lucky enough to be employed in companies of 50 or more, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave time for family emergencies or the birth or adoption of a child. On the international stage, FMLA is woefully lacking, with America lagging way behind the rest of the industrialized world. FMLA sets the tone for much of America’s corporate community, comfortable with giving little support to parents, not only during the first year of their child’s life but for the next 18.
Many parents strive to counter-balance this by seeking jobs where they can work from home, either some or all of the time. While this arrangement is clearly of benefit to parents, they are not the only ones who stand to win. Studies indicate increased workflow as well as fewer sick days required by at-home employees, upticking profit as well. Parents of young children are not the only ones who cite more productivity and increased job satisfaction when working from home; middle-aged workers caring for aging parents or dealing with their own health concerns also benefit from this type of flexibility.
Working Hard or Goofing Off Yahoo’s policy change cited a need for better communication and collaboration between workers and the need for them to be side-by-side. Clearly, having all hands on deck can be of benefit to business and some types of companies require it in order to function (think hospital emergency room). While it’s hard to ascertain what exactly was going on at Yahoo, many companies report easy access between telecommuting employees and brainstorming sessions just as effective via Skype or telephone as they are in in the board room. This type of flexibility enables companies to hire people across geographic regions and even time zones. Certainly, there are benefits to face-to-face interaction, but the assumption that at-office access consistently fosters greater workmanship between colleagues has not been proven.
At the core of many employers’ discomfort with an at-home workforce is fear that their employees will spend the day in pursuits other than work. And of course, this may be true, for certain employees. Companies can avoid this by hiring smart. A good employee will be a good employee no matter where they work, willing to be accountable and will give their attention and commitment to their jobs during the work day. Interestingly, employers may actually be getting more bang for their buck when employees work from home. A study done at Brown University showed a 12-percent increase in productivity among at-home-based call center workers. Many telecommuters report increased hours engaged in business-related activity, extending way past traditional workday hours.
Finding the Balance
The elusive work-life balance may be little more than a trendy catchphrase for some, but is also the Holy Grail for many families. Parents with less-than-flexible employers cringe when asking for time off to stay home with a sick child or to take them to a dental appointment. Juggling work and family creates stress and diminishes the ability to focus or achieve. Hours spent commuting might also be better utilized on business projects, exercising or catching up on sleep. Despite Yahoo’s shift, most employers willing to take this leap in trust do not report reduced work product and seem to also benefit from enhanced worker loyalty.
Working at home, however, is not a panacea. Finding balance in the never-ending juggling act called life can be difficult on a good day and near impossible on a bad one. One of the biggest deficits long-time telecommuters often reference doesn’t adversely affect their employers or their families, but themselves. Isolation and loneliness can pervade the psyches of home-based employees who aren’t able to balance out their time with more social or self-related pursuits.
No matter how increased the work flow, there is something to be said for taking off fuzzy slippers and putting on a pair of heels. Achieving a work-life balance requires more than creating a strategy for maintaining high standards at work and a happy family, it also means finding ways of taking care of yourself so as to continue to juggle life’s moving parts and remain productive and happy in all of them.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.