Working from home is becoming more common. But can it be done well?
Mike Baker has never been a big “work from home guy.” He just doesn’t think he can be as productive if he’s not in his Fort Point office, where he serves as marketing director for the corporate travel platform Lola.com. There are just too many distractions — and comforts — in his East Boston apartment: “I’m in my home, my bed is right there.”
Plus he’s had some bad remote-work experiences, like the time he dialed into a meeting and had difficulty hearing, couldn’t tell who was talking, and got hung up on.
But with roughly 10 percent of the 100-person Lola.com team working from home on any given day, and a handful of full-time remote employees, Baker and some of his colleagues are working off-site this week in an attempt to better understand what it’s like and gauge the appetite for telework as the company expands.
The effort, part of a national Work From Home Week, reflects a growing interest in what one workplace consultant calls the “fourth industrial revolution.”
About half the workforce telecommutes at least once a month, according to Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs, a job search site, and the number of non-self-employed people in the United States who work remotely at least half the time grew 159 percent between 2005 and 2017, according to the organizations’ analysis of census data.
The rise comes as technology improves and job seekers in a historically tight labor market demand more flexibility — and employers realize the benefits of being able to hire people who live anywhere. Telecommuting can also save companies money by reducing the amount of office space they need, and ease traffic congestion and pollution.
Just last week, Governor Charlie Baker proposed giving companies that allow telework a $2,000-per-employee tax credit to reduce the number of cars on the road, which would be the first such incentive in the nation. Just 4.7 percent of the state’s workforce telecommutes full time, a lower share than 19 other states, according to FlexJobs.
Of course, working from home doesn’t work for everyone. Employees who work in stores or handle products or provide hands-on services have to show up every day. And companies have to provide the right technology and communication tools to accommodate dispersed workforces.
In recent years, several major corporations have generated headlines by rescinding policies allowing employees to telecommute. Yahoo, IBM, and Best Buy were all struggling when they brought workers back to the office, and their leaders noted a need for greater collaboration and connection. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency scaled back the number of days employees are allowed to work from home to one day a week.
Those organizations probably didn’t have the proper tools and support systems in place, said Laurel Farrer, founder of the Remote Work Association, whose 300-plus members are mostly managers and executives interested in improving off-site work.
“Remote work is not all sunshine and rainbows,” she said, noting that Dell and Microsoft have huge populations of telecommuters and are thriving. “It’s important for managers to understand that.”
One of the biggest problems is isolation, Farrer said — not social, but informational. Many companies don’t create specific communication channels or other protocols for teleworkers.
“Most conversations about remote work are very shallow,” she said. “ ‘You can work from the beach, hurray!’ ” As a result, workers can feel disconnected and less valued than people who are physically in the office.
In fact, according to a 2010 study, there is a bias against people who work off-site. They may get worse performance evaluations, fewer promotions, and smaller raises than their co-workers in the office.
Research on the benefits of remote work is mixed and sometimes contradictory. A number of studies show that it increases productivity, though not for highly collaborative jobs. Some studies have found that it reduces engagement and retention, while others have found telecommuting improves these things. According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, engagement is highest when employees spend three or four days of a five-day week working off-site but still get regular face-time with co-workers and managers.
Owl Labs, the Somerville video conference company behind Work From Home Week, is seeking to raise awareness about the challenges facing remote workers and identify ways to improve their experience. The company was started by a frustrated remote worker who had an “aha” moment when, during a meeting, a co-worker put the video equipment on a swivel chair so it could be rotated to allow off-site employees to see who was talking. The result: the Meeting Owl, which has a 360-degree camera that automatically focuses on the person speaking — a tool frequently used by companies with off-site workers.
“Those folks are sometimes forgotten,” said Owl Labs chief executive Frank Weishaupt, who admitted that in many years of running remote teams for other companies he hadn’t thought much about what their actual work experience was like. But now he tries to “equalize the experience,” even sending off-site employees Grubhub gift cards when the company orders lunch for employees.
About a third of the Owl Labs staff works from home full time, and another third telecommutes part time. Weishaupt, who comes to the office every day, is encouraging his fellow onsite employees to work remotely this week.
About 25 companies around the country are participating in the work-from-home event, and their feedback will be collected when it’s over.
HubSpot, the Cambridge marketing software firm, which partnered with Owl Labs on the event, is so focused on its teleworkers — more than 200 full time, and hundreds more who work from home regularly — that in January it named Meaghan Williams to be its first remote work and inclusion program manager.
The company also has a weekly “remote water cooler” Zoom video conference for out-of-office employees. Participants talk about the weather, introduce their dogs — anything but work, said Williams, who works from her home in Woburn three or four days a week.
HubSpot also holds monthly mixers to pair up off-site employees for one-on-one Zoom chats, as well as a yoga class and mentorship program via video conference. And during on-site events such as Bring Your Kid to Work Day and HubSpot’s employee appreciation week, the company sends notes, gifts, and swag to remote workers and their families.
“We want to make sure that every employee feels valued,” Williams said.
Baker, of Lola.com, spent the first day of Work From Home Week on his deck in East Boston. And even though there was construction noise, and he missed the office air conditioning, he was able to spend several uninterrupted hours focused on projects.
At work, people are always coming up and asking him questions, which is “the pro and the con,” he said. In order to preserve fruitful face-to-face interactions, Baker imagines he’ll still go into the office most of the time, but he’s now considering working at home a few days a month.
“It was nice to know,” he said, “that I could open up my screen, play my music, and know that for the next two hours nobody was going to be tapping me on the shoulder.”