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  • 01.13.15

Why Telecommuting Can Be Dangerous For Your Company Culture

Working remotely all the time means missing out on that je ne sais quoi of being in the office.

Why Telecommuting Can Be Dangerous For Your Company Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Martijn van Exel]

Telecommuting, or doing work while away from the office, is “in,” and for some very good reasons. One Stanford study shows that telecommuting increases work productivity by 13%. It cuts down on the emotional costs of commuting and arguably increases workplace satisfaction. Most companies offer some form of telecommuting–go ahead and finish up from home after your 2 p.m. doctor’s appointment, or check your email before heading into the office–contributing to its 80% growth since 2005.

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Telecommuting allows me to balance my personal time with my work time on a daily basis. I get up early, work out, put in a couple hours of work, and then get to have breakfast with my wife and kids before heading into the office at around 10. That way I don’t have to wait until dinner to spend some time with my family on a daily basis. I love it.

But, like all good things, telecommuting works best in moderation.

Working From Home Means Missed Opportunities

If a strong majority of my employees didn’t come into the office every day, our company could not be as successful as it is. While the tools available for communicating and collaborating online are better than ever, there is still something about being elbow to elbow with coworkers that is likely impossible to replicate online.

That something stems from the daily accidental and secondary conversations that occur in person–only high-priority items tend to get addressed with a telecommuting worker. Someone who is working remotely misses out on small moments of coaching, understanding, and friendship-forming. (In fact, we value these moments so highly that we’re most comfortable in an open office instead of traditional cubicles.) Office culture is set by unsaid norms and shared experiences. You can’t do that online.

To illustrate the point, imagine the difference between going to a baseball game with your best friend versus video chatting/texting while watching a game on TV. Much of the experience and dialog will in fact be the same, but I think we all recognize that something is absolutely lost when both parties are not physically present.

Physicality Is Part Of The Human Experience

We do have four people who telecommute for a majority of their workplace hours. In all of their cases, they started as in-office workers but then had pressing family obligations that forced them to move across the country.

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Allowing them to telecommute was a tough decision for us; we lost out on four core team members–a cofounder, our first two employees, and a key customer advisor–who brought their warmth and personality to the office every day. But at the end of the day, it was their contributions to the business that made them invaluable. They now work a minimum of four days in the office every month. Two of them fly in almost every single week of the year for two long days in the office.

Outside of these four employees, our company largely practices a daily mix of telecommuting and in-office work—it’s work-life blending, or blurring the line between what time is dedicated to “work” and “play,” at its best.

While some employees keep their work and home lives completely separate by doing all their work at the office every weekday, many will get some work done from home before they come in or after the leave for the day. This is partially due to the one-off commitments like doctor’s appointments, but it also reflects the reality that many people enjoy the flexibility of doing some of their daily work remotely. It enables them to take a few more breaks during the day or get home early to coach their kid’s team before finishing up later. It’s not at all uncommon to get emails from each other between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Of course, this is a reflection of our culture of high freedom and high responsibility. I think that in many ways, Google has it right. Make your office a playground–a space where employees look forward to work in the morning and don’t leave drained in the evening. But unlike Google, we don’t want our employees literally living in the office.

Sure, we have a ping-pong table, stocked kitchen, and most recently, an arcade, but we ultimately respect that employees have their own lives outside of the office. We provide these benefits to help our employees take breaks the way they want to–if we expect them to blend work with their life outside of the office, we should give them outlets to enjoy their breaks in the office as well.

This investment in our culture and workplace environment has only facilitated our culture of kindness, helpfulness, and friendliness. I haven’t seen our kind of culture created from businesses that largely rely on full-time telecommuters.

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When books like Remote break ground in the business world, I sometimes pause and wonder whether limiting telecommuting options is the best solution for us. But the hesitation is short-lived. I fully believe that there is something permanently lost from companies who have a largely remote workforce.

At the end of the day, a company is nothing but its people and its culture. Create a deliberate, yet limited telecommuting policy, and keep in-person culture a priority. For Capterra, it’s one of our greatest secrets to success.

Michael Ortner is the founder and CEO of Capterra, a free web service that helps businesses find the right software. He writes regularly about entrepreneurship and company culture for his blog, Knocking Down Doors, and he has been featured in Inc. Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal about growing and leading a tech company over the past 15 years.

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