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September 9, 2013

The Telecommuting Debate: What The Non-Profit Sector Can Teach Us

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Marissa Mayer made her fair share of controversial moves during her first year as CEO of Yahoo, but none raised more eyebrows than her decision to eliminate the company’s once popular telecommuting program. And for good reason. As a veteran of the HR industry, I can confidently say that Mayer’s decision to prohibit telecommuting among her employees is hurting her already ailing company. It’s time for Mayer to bring telecommuting back, and its time for non-profit leaders to recognize the important lesson they can learn from her misstep.

Unlike some of her critics, I don’t disagree with with Mayer’s decision to push the reset button at Yahoo. The company’s culture clearly needed an overhaul, and Mayer has made many bold shifts that have had a positive impact on the organization. Non-profits of all sizes and missions could benefit from taking a page out of Mayer’s book and making the brave move to revamp their own cultures when it becomes clear that old practices are no longer effective.

However, terminating Yahoo’s work-from-home culture is one shift I simply can’t get behind. Flexibility is one of the most important determinants of employee satisfaction and retention, and with a comeback on the line, Yahoo can’t afford to burn bridges with its talent.

As I see it, there isn’t a corporation, small business or non-profit out there that can afford to ignore employee demand for workplace flexibility. In fact, non-profit organizations might have an even stronger imperative to start and maintain telecommuting programs than their for-profit counterparts. Want proof? Just take a look at the numbers.

According to Nonprofit HR’s 2013 Employment Trends Survey, 61 percent of employees who worked at a non-profit organization with a telecommuting policy said it positively influenced their recruitment and retention, while only two percent said it had a negative impact. Employees also reported that providing a flexible work environment through practices such as telecommuting is increasingly becoming an expectation among new hires.

In the non-profit world, where workplace demands can be high, benefits like telecommuting can make a world of difference when it comes to attracting and retaining high performing employees.

Improved recruitment and retention isn’t the only benefit of telecommuting, however. Telecommuting employees consistently report lower stress levels and better health, which translates to better work, and ultimately, improved organizational performance. In fact, dozens of studies analyzed by scholars at Penn State showed that telecommuting improves productivity, performance, job satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction.

With this in mind, I believe that nothing positive will come from Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting, except for, perhaps, an example that non-profit organizations can learn from.

With that said, I realize that instituting a telecommuting policy, or maintaining one when times get tough, can be an intimidating prospect for HR leaders at organizations both big and small. After all, there is a certain sense of control and that comes from having your whole team in the same place day-in and day-out. However, making a flexible work environment work for your organization isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

In my experience, a successful telecommuting arrangement requires four things: clear guidelines, managers who are willing to trust their staff when they can’t see them, regularly scheduled face time, and tech tools that make it easy for employees to stay connected no matter where they’re working.

The American Society for Hematology (ASH), a non-profit that my firm works with, is a great example of an organization that has put all of these components into place and is enjoying the benefits of a successful telecommuting program. Before instituting their policy, ASH created a training program for telecommuters that focused on pillars such as productivity, accountability and communication and sets clear expectations in each of these areas. Thanks to the training program, as well as a part-time telecommuting schedule and technology that keeps the lines of communication open, 50 percent of ASH’s employees now successfully telecommute. Leaders at the organization feel that their telecommuting policy positively impacts morale and allows participating staff to spend more time focusing on producing specific results.

Leaders who are interested in starting or improving their own telecommuting programs can learn a great deal from examples like these.

Armed with the right knowledge and resources, non-profit organizations and large corporations alike can build telecommuting programs that drive positive bottom-line results.

Let us continue to move forward, invite work and life to co-exist, and strive to improve productivity and retention. Massive cultural shifts are often good for failing organizations, but eliminating the flexibility that helps employees thrive is simply counterproductive. Flexible workplaces breed satisfied and engaged employees. Let us take Mayer’s move as a cautionary tale and continue to find ways to help our talent, and our organizations, succeed.


Lisa Brown Morton is the president and CEO of Nonprofit HR. Under her direction Nonprofit HR has served some of the most prominent organizations in the country, including Amnesty International, Independent Sector and NeighborWorks America.  Lisa is also the founder of The NonProfit HR Conference . Learn more or register here.

5 Responses to “The Telecommuting Debate: What The Non-Profit Sector Can Teach Us

    Telecommuting is valuable. There is no difference from on-site vs on-site employees and a technologically advance company like Yahoo should realize that there are a multitude of viral management tools that can be implemented to see the same if not better results than what you would get from on-site staff.

    By providing the individual with the right equipment, support and adjusting your tactics to meet the special needs of the telecommuter, companies can greatly increase productivity and everyone can benefit.

    avatar Francis says:

    Remote working, when taken to extreme (which, I’m assuming was happening at Yahoo), can seriously have detrimental effects.

    I, and many others experienced this whilst working for IBM (yes, a tech company that large, and with all the tools available to them), as basically, the whole team were so dispersed that effectively, it wasn’t a team – just a bunch of workers, performing similar roles and being managed by the same person. It got so bad, that we introduced a “Team Tuesday” where the whole team would work from the office so as to improve team communication/training/morale etc.

    avatar Sean Fuller says:

    Lisa, I couldn’t agree more about Yahoo step to ban telework should be seen as a cautionary tale. The fact is, the cost for companies that ignore the benefits of telework are at a all time high. Telework adoption is growing momentum, what companies need now are tools to help manage that growth not try to hamper it.

    avatar Lori Santillana says:

    I have been a telecommuting employee for the last 7 years. My productivity increase was almost doubled and the “noise” of gossip and here-say was greatly minimized. Weekly team meetings via teleconference with several different groups felt as if we were all in the same room. What happened is that my company gained at least 2-4 more hours a day over a standard work day and I never felt the hit. I felt connected every day to all my colleagues and love telecommuting. My company had my complete devotion and loyalty way more than if I had been in a cubicle. Some companies continue to do this right. CA Technologies is one of them!

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