Teleworkers happy but no more productive: study

By Laura Cassiani
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/18/2002

Telework may be a boost to employee morale and retention efforts, but claims of higher productivity are overblown, a new survey has found.

More and more Canadian employers are offering the work-from-home option to attract and keep staff in the ever-increasing competition over sparse labour. About one million Canadians telework with the average teleworker spending one to two days working from home. While studies tracking productivity of teleworkers offer conflicting data, a new survey of 200 teleworkers by assistant professor Derrick Neufeld of the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business found increases in productivity were so minimal as to be “statistically insignificant.”

“The numbers went in the right direction but the (increase) wasn’t dramatic,” says Neufeld.

Neufeld studied 200 high-performing employees from four organizations including two major federal government departments and two multinational companies.

Back in the boardroom, the popularity of telework stems largely from the presumption that teleworkers have the potential for greater productivity. Conversely, cynics out there who are still suspicious of telework will be surprised to find that despite all of the distractions of being home, the survey found teleworkers are no less productive than their office-bound counterparts, says Neufeld.

While the four organizations in Neufeld’s survey each had different objectives for the program, all cited increases in productivity and cost saving as goals. The two public organizations cited quality of employees’ lives as more important than bottom-line oriented goals.

Some employers are so focused on the perceived financial returns, they run the risk of upsetting employees who may feel they are being shoved into working from home, with the added burden of footing the bill for home-office equipment.

“(Telework) can fundamentally change work for people. It has the potential for financial savings but without a balance as to what it may do to the employee, employers are being awfully short sighted,” says Neufeld.

One trend all studies have shown is that teleworkers report being happier and employees who are given the option to work from home show a “substantial increase in the level of job satisfaction,” according to Neufeld’s survey.

According to a 1998 report released by Ekos Research, four in 10 Canadians said they would switch employers if they could be doing the same job with the option of teleworking. In the same report, about three out of 10 workers said they would even choose an employer who offered teleworking before one that offered an increase of five to 10 per cent in pay.

It’s also proving to be one of the best retention tools available, especially for the IT industry where top talent may live across two oceans and may not be able or willing to relocate. Telework makes hiring that person easier says Bob Fortier, president of the Canadian Telework Association.

“If you find an individual but they are in another city, with telework you may not have to relocate them.”

Telework is another step in the revolutionizing of work. And, just as flex-work changed the way people work, so too will telework.

“I have absolutely no doubt that the term telework will just disappear and it will just be work,” he says.

All data indicates that workplaces across North America are becoming more flexible, with employers offering a diversity of work options to accommodate employees.

As for the traditional nine-to-five workday, a recent American survey of top executives showed that the majority believe it will become obsolete in the next decade.

“These results should be no surprise...but they reinforce all of today’s trends in the workplace ranging from telecommuting to the growth of the Internet to flexible work options,” says Allen Salikof, president and CEO of Management Recruiters International Inc., who conducted the survey.

Like any revolution, telework will have to overcome a lot of skepticism. The tallest barrier to overcome is the distrust of “old school” management who prefer to physically see their employees working, says Fortier.

In his recent survey, Neufeld says a surprising number of managers still held the belief that “if they aren’t in front of me how do I know they are working?”

“Trust is a very critical issue in teleworking. (Managers in the survey) were very nervous about sending people home. More than I expected.”

Implementation is key to the success of teleworking, says Neufeld, and he cautions organizations against “jumping in with both feet.”

“Flexibility; that’s what the potential for telework really is. It depends a lot on your environment, your personality and your work ethic. Some people who started off loved the idea but in the end decided it didn’t work for them.”