Telecommuting: Can it work?

Once things settle down, should financial institutions let remote workers continue working from home? Many sing the praises of work-from-home, but some sing a different tune altogether.

Work-from-home is on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reportedly, some organizations are finding they like it and might just keep it up. As a result, predictions both dire and cheerful abound as to how the post-pandemic will look.

According to research-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, United States employers could stand to increase the number of from-home workers by about fifteen times:

We estimate that 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work. We know that currently, only 3.6% of the employee workforce works at home half-time or more. Gallup data from 2016 shows that 43% of the workforce works at home at least some of the time. Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles. 

It’s a bandwagon on which many are keen to jump Alvin Chia raved in Huffpost that “remote work will be the wave of the future”:

By allowing workers to work remotely, and to work flexible hours as long as they meet deadlines, companies aren’t permitting laziness—they’re allowing autonomy. They’re telling the people they hired that they trust them to do their job, and to do it well. Guess what? That’s exactly what those people are going to do.

That’s lovely—in theory—but Chia may have been overly optimistic if not overly trusting. Many employers have tried a remote work force only to emerge from the experience saying “never again.”

Take Richard Laermer, founder and CEO of New York public relations firm RLM PR. He wrote the following for NBC News Think:

… I had hoped home commuting would increase productivity and accommodate a more diverse work force—arguments often used to justify the policy. But instead, my company’s experiment ended up convincing me that telecommuting hurt my employees (and my business) more than it helped … too many employees treated their work-from-home day as paid time off. They rolled their eyes when managers tried to reach them in the middle of the day. Response times slowed considerably.

While Facebook predicts that half of its workforce will work from home by 2025, IBM went down that path in 2009 and reversed course in 2017. According to an article in Forbes, the tech giant found that telecommuting exacted a cost in productivity, synergy, collaboration, communication via body language, and more. And, of course, supervision suffered. It’s hard enough at the office to know if an employee is working or surfing. It’s near impossible when the employee is home.

IBM isn’t alone. Yahoo, Aetna, Best Buy, Apple, and Google—all of them have a recent history of shying from work-from-home. In 2013, BBC News reported, “Only last week Google’s chief financial officer Patrick Pichette said when the company is asked how many people telecommute, their answer is ‘as few as possible.’” As recently as 2018, Bank of America, too, had been reducing its work-from-home program.

Yet in the current situation, the above-referenced giants have had no choice but to turn to a remote work force. The question is whether, once things have settled down, they’ll bring workers back to the office.

Financial institutions, too, have turned to work-from-home in a big way.

Forbes recently reported that JPMorgan “asked thousands of employees to work from home.” Banking Dive reported that TD Bank “is moving about 350 Canadian and 150 U.S. workers a day into remote capability and should complete the transition by the end of [April 2020].” American Banker reports, “Bank of New York Mellon has about 95% of its employees working from home.”

Yet, also according to American Banker, U.S. banks “have long worried that more remote work could increase the risk of fraud and other security problems, reduce productivity and stifle interactions with clients.” Still, right now they’re in no rush to bring employees back to the office, productivity and other concerns aside.

As states start to lift stay-at-home orders tied to the coronavirus pandemic, banks and other businesses are thinking about bringing employees back into offices. Financial services firms appear to be taking a slower approach than most. They are contemplating technologies like robotic process automation and contact tracing to help workers be productive and safe … for now, bankers are more worried about health risks, said Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization group.

So, have things changed since only a few years ago? Are people more likely to work harder and better, or at least as well, from home as from the office? Or will past unfortunate experiences repeat themselves?

This is not a tech question. It is a human nature question. Human nature has a history of being slow and, at times, downright reluctant to change. But who knows? New tech has greatly enhanced the connection between home and office. As usual, time will tell.

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