Balancing act: Survey says telecommuting threatens career growth

Published: Tuesday, May 7 2013 10:24 a.m. MDT

According to a March survey of more than 300 executives registered online with Korn/Ferry, 77 percent said their companies allowed telecommuting across job categories.

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I made a decision last week that could put my future career opportunities at risk.

At least, that's what a new study would lead me to believe.

So what was the risky decision? To spend a half-day working from home.

I had a couple of projects on which I needed to focus — completing my department's budget for the next fiscal year and working on a new potential product for us — and I wanted to be able to attack them with minimal distractions. I also wanted to take a half-day off to get some chores done around the house.

I decided the best way to achieve both my work and home goals would be to telecommute, and it worked out even better than I expected. I was able to wrap up the budget and make excellent progress on the new product, but I also had time to mow the lawn and take my son to his late-afternoon baseball game.

As I reflected on the day that evening, I was amazed at how productive I had been.

Then, as I looked through my email, I ran across a press release about a new survey from the Korn/Ferry Institute, an organization that commissions, originates and publishes research using Korn/Ferry’s expertise in executive recruitment and talent development.

According to a March survey of more than 300 executives registered online with Korn/Ferry, 77 percent said their companies allowed telecommuting across job categories. That same percentage reported that they had telecommuted at some point in their careers, and 58 percent indicated that they were telecommuting now.

The survey also showed that 94 percent of respondents saw telecommuting as an important option for working parents.

However, 60 percent of the executives surveyed said they believed that telecommuting could limit career growth opportunities.

"While some high-profile companies have stepped away from telecommuting, the survey shows that most enterprises still see it as an important way to drive productivity, increase retention and demonstrate inclusion in the workplace," the press release said. "According to Korn/Ferry, it's all about driving responsibility and accountability, whether a person works in the office or at home.

"While working at home can be beneficial for both companies and workers, it can also lead to ‘invisibility’ that can limit opportunities for career advancement. It is important for telecommuters to remain networked as closely as possible with peers and leaders in the office."

Yes, I probably overstated the riskiness of my telecommuting day at the start of this column. I work from home at times, but only occasionally, so I'm not exactly "invisible" to people at the office. (It's hard for someone my size to hide, even in a forest of cubicles!)

However, I still found the results of this study interesting, especially in light of Yahoo's decision to end telecommuting for some employees, as I discussed in a column a couple of months ago. Could this Korn/Ferry survey indicate another step in a growing backlash against working from home?

I still don't believe that to be the case. Telecommuting makes too much sense for people in certain industries and occupations for it to go away completely, and I think some companies sincerely want to improve their employees' work-life balance by offering such perks.

Some of the readers of that earlier column seemed to agree with me. For example, I received an email from a reader named Cameron who wrote that he thought Yahoo was making a mistake.

"I work in financial services and my arrangement is currently 100 percent work from home," Cameron wrote. "I also spent nearly a decade in the office for the same company. I can definitively say that working from home allows far less distraction, and I am far more productive.

"Have you ever noticed people that come in the office early or stay late so they 'can get things done'? No one seems to question if the office environment is even the right idea. It's just accepted as the best because that's always the way it's been done. ... This is a big gaffe for Yahoo. ... They will lose good talent due to this decision, and they've given their competitors an additional benefit to attract talent."

However, a reader who left a comment online felt differently about Yahoo's decision.

"The best worker is the one that wants to be at work, who enjoys their job and wants to improve constantly," this reader wrote. "Even a talented employee, if they do their job well but don't love it, will never really be among the 'best' workers.

"Yes, eventually many get burned out even with a job they loved at one point, but considering that Yahoo is in the technology/innovation industry, having young, motivated, energetic employees who are willing to work all the time for a few years is more important than having a satisfied, older employee who values 'work-life balance.'

"I know this isn't the case for all industries, and I'm really not interested in how useful a good 'work-life' balance is for other industries. Yahoo is in innovation; it's an industry meant for the young, the enthusiastic and the workaholics. If your goal in life is to spend more time with your family, friends and non-work hobbies, you should probably find another industry."

Both of these readers make good points from extremely different points of view. I tend to agree with Cameron, but perhaps we're both wrong.

Once again, I'd be interested in your ideas. Do you think telecommuting will continue to grow in popularity, or will it diminish as the result of a backlash like that seen at Yahoo? If it does flourish, do people who work from home run the risk of missing out on opportunities for advancement? And is that fair for all involved?

Send me your reactions, as I'm sure I'll address this issue again in a future column.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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