Monday Mornings with Madison



A growing number of companies – large and small – are now faced with the decision of whether to allow staff to work from remote locations. National companies like Madison, with a sales force located throughout the U.S., have had employees working from remote locations for years.  However, it is no longer just limited to salespeople. Technology has made it possible for companies to hire staff to perform a myriad of jobs – not just sales – from remote locations. Typically, those remote employees work from home part or most of the time.   

The question is whether it is a good idea.  While every company must make that decision based on their own particular circumstances and management style, there is no doubt that having remote staff is a growing trend.  While having staff work from remote locations does have its challenges, many companies are finding that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

For employees, the benefits are many.  The primary benefit is time.  By working from home, the average employee saves anywhere from five to 20 hours of commute time per week.  Over the course of a year, that adds up to anywhere from 250 to over 1000 hours of time.  That is time an employee can then spend getting more done for the company.  If you’re thinking that the time an employee saves from commuting would not be spent working, perhaps you are right… but even so it could still benefit the employer.  How so?  An employee could spend the time saved from commuting handling matters for which he/she would otherwise have to take personal or sick time to handle.  Or the employee could use the time getting more exercise, thereby increasing his/her stamina and overall health.  In turn, this would reduce the number of days they would need to call in sick.  Better health would also reduce his/her medical expenses, thus reducing the company’s cost of health insurance.   There is also a financial benefit to the employee.  By not commuting, the employee saves on the cost of gasoline and the wear and tear on their vehicle.  Working from home can also save an employee on the cost of dry cleaning as well as the cost of eating breakfast or lunch out.  This can add up to thousands of dollars each year. 

But what is in it for the employer?  At first glance, the benefits may not seem as abundant.  The most obvious is that by permitting remote employees, an employer has a much larger marketplace from which to recruit. That means a more vast pool of talent from which to hire.  Finding the right candidate with the exact skill set becomes much easier.  That creates a more level playing field for smaller companies and companies located in markets where there is a tighter pool of high-skilled talent.

There is also another benefit to remote staffing that is perhaps even more valuable to employers.  It has to do with staff productivity.  While employers worry that remote staff will be less productive, it seems the opposite is true.  Remote staff are likely to be more productive than in-office staff.  How so?  It has to do with the issue of a person’s natural productivity cycle.  When working, employees today have trouble spending eight consecutive hours in front of a computer.  Why?  They lose the ability to concentrate effectively after a few hours. Everyone goes through alternating periods of high and low mental acuity.  That is why most people subdivide their day into different types of tasks.  A few hours might be spent being creative:  writing, researching, programming, designing, etc.  After that, time is focused on other tasks such as making calls, following up on loose ends, and reading and responding to email.  Why?  Any more than three hours in front of a computer and most people’s eyes start to hurt.  They become restless and lose the ability to do their best work.  Instead of pushing on, most people switch to activities that allow their mind to recharge. It’s counter productive to force work when the mental energy isn’t there. 

According to industrial psychologists, the problem with the continuous eight-hour work day is that it was not designed for today’s office work.  It makes sense for physical labor and manufacturing work, but with information workers it does not account for the mental energy cycle. While the ability of a factory worker to think analytically is irrelevant (he’s either cranking widgets or he isn’t), mental energy is essential to an information worker.  For modern information workers, nearly all tasks involve creative or strategic thinking.

Productivity levels generally seem to peak twice a day.  After the first cycle consisting of a few hours of intense work, energy levels drop and workers downgrade to less demanding tasks like responding to email and tinkering with existing creations. Towards the end of the cycle, the mind is so cluttered and drained that workers resort to “work related activities” that appear productive but don’t contribute to the bottom line. The second cycle is similar but the productivity peak isn’t as high. For different people, the time of day of their peaks and valleys vary.  It is not a matter of attitude, but rather a matter of mental energy.  An information worker cannot be forced to be highly productive when the mental focus isn’t there.  This problem is a direct result of the continuous, eight-hour work day.  Employees cannot be highly productive because of mental fatigue, but they aren’t allowed to recharge because the continuous, eight-hour work day requires the appearance of constant productivity. The result is millions of unproductive workers trapped at their desks.

The solution is to plan around the mental energy cycle by breaking the work day into multiple segments. The traditional office setting doesn’t accommodate this because there are few activities available that can allow employees to recharge their mental battery. People can’t do quick household chores, run short errands, or engage in brief recreational activities at work.  While some companies have tried to make the work environment more accommodating by offering meals, fitness centers, and special areas for relaxation, they are expensive for employers and only partially satisfy employees.

A remote work arrangement is a better solution because it reduces employer costs and allows employees to adjust their work schedule to their mental energy cycle. When a worker becomes mentally fatigued, they can go off the clock and engage in recharge activities that are personally productive like exercise or relaxation. When energy returns, the worker can start working again at a high level, effectively cutting out the low productivity period of the cycle.  In turn, employers don’t pay for unproductive time and employees get to work in a more natural pattern that adjusts to their personal lives.

As commutes get worse and technology improves, the number of remote workers is sure to continue to increase. While there will always be a need for some employees to work at the office – especially those that who interact with customers daily – for many companies having remote staff is feasible, and perhaps, even desirable. Over the next few weeks, we will examine some of the common objections to having employees work remotely and how to deal with those issues.  Stay tuned.

“If the world operates as one big market, every employee will compete with every person anywhere in the world who is capable of doing the same job. There are lots of them and many of them are hungry.” Andy Grove

© 2010 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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