The bloom may be off the rose on how some blue chip companies now perceive telecommuting, but new research points to collateral damage at firms that adopt this approach in a candidate-driven market.

While some remote workers have been ordered back into corporate offices — the Bureau of Labor Statistics saw work-from-home numbers drop two percentage points to 22% in 2016 from 2015 — MRINetwork’s 2017 Recruiter Sentiment Study cautions that the trend could alienate top talent in the executive, managerial and professional labor market. Industry observers suggest brokers and advisers heed this warning on behalf of their employer clients and for their own company practices.

As many as 68% of 265 executive recruiters and 53% of 100 employers polled say candidates expect to work remotely somewhat often to very often. More than half of 263 job candidates MRINetwork also surveyed described an option to work from home as a somewhat to extremely important job consideration.

A short-sighted cultural shift across Corporate America is responsible for stripping away these benefits, according to Nancy Halverson, general manager for MRINetwork, one of the world’s largest executive search and recruitment organizations.

“Without the proper management, structure and training in place to engage remote workers and ensure that they’re a part of the culture, it’s easy to say the only way we can regain a strong culture back is to get everyone in the same building,” she says. This type of thinking is “a cop out,” she adds, when a more thoughtful approach to managing remove workers is needed.

Chuck Wilsker, president, CEO and co-founder of the Telework Coalition, traces the trend to decisions by several high-profile companies to end the arrangement, including AT&T, Yahoo!, Hewlett Packard and IBM’s marketing division. He says IBM was saving millions of dollars a year on real estate alone by allowing employees to work at home.

Despite some leaders retreating on telecommuting options, the percentage of employees who work from home continues to increase. For example, almost 60% of companies now offer the benefit on an ad hoc basis vs. 45% in 2013, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s latest annual benefits survey.

Rising real estate costs, technology improvements and many younger employees expecting to work more flexibly are among the driving forces cited by Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute, as well as chief science officer and executive director of Mind in the Making at the Bezos Family Foundation.

Invaluable retention strategy’
Telecommuting can raise a workforce’s energy level and efficiency, as well as reduce office gossip, Halverson says, noting particular appeal to millennials and those working in creative fields. One MRINetwork recruiter noted that with a low unemployment rate of 2.8% within the executive, managerial and professional sector, employers will need to be flexible if they want to draw the best possible candidates. Another labeled the ability to work remotely, a key component of work-life balance, “invaluable as a retention strategy” in highly skilled tight labor markets.

Wilsker, who helped rewrite the Telework Act in 2005 and Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, says the term telework was coined in 1973, while technology-enabled telework began in the early 1090s when consumer-grade broadband through DSL became available.

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“One of the problems that I have seen, and this has been going on for 10 years at least, is that organizations are not taking advantage of the enabling technologies, such as video, which lets people collaborate all they want,” he says.

An escape from hellacious commutes in cities with congested roadways has fueled telecommuting over the years. Wilsker recalls a professional in the Washington, D.C., area admitting to trading a decent job for an opportunity to manage a local McDonald’s where he earned 20% less. The upside was he no longer had to commute two hours a day before his children woke up and was able to spend more time with the family. He also slashed expenses related to maintaining his automobile, work-related clothing and meals. “You can’t put a price on that,” Wilsker says.

Indeed, nearly one-third of 5,500 people responding to a recent survey by FlexJobs reported daily round-trip commutes of more than two hours, Interest in workplace flexibility “spans generations, educational backgrounds and career levels,” according to Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, which recently conducted its 6th annual survey on the topic.

A leading online service for professionals seeking telecommuting, flexible schedule, part-time and freelance jobs, her company found that many of the survey respondents described themselves as introverts, entrepreneurs, digital nomads, rural dwellers, students and those with health issues. Some even expressed a willingness to exchange certain benefits such as vacation time or 401(k) contributions for flexible work schedules.

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