Telecommuting is a practice in which an employee works at a location—usually, but not always, one's home—that is remote from the actual business facility at which he/she is employed. Under this arrangement, the employee maintains close contact with coworkers and supervisors via various forms of computer, Internet, and communication technology (i.e, electronic mail, telephone, computer disks, etc.)
Telecommuting is an increasingly popular work option in many businesses and industries, and its usage is expected to increase in the future, boosted by new innovations in computer and communication technology. This trend is driven by several factors. Linda Shaw, author of Telecommute! Go to Work without Leaving Home, wrote that "the labor pool of employees with specific talents will shrink, making employers more willing to make concessions to keep valued employees happy. A smaller labor pool combined with an increasing demand for highly skilled laborers has fueled employee-driven change in working environments. Scarce, highly skilled workers have begun to demand more flexible work arrangements, especially as they choose to live farther and farther from their employers." Shaw and other observers also note demographic changes within the American work force as a factor in the growth of telecommuting. These analysts contend that new generations of workers are less willing to sacrifice time with family than their counterparts of previous eras. This desire to spend more time at home and avoid long commutes is touted as a key factor in making telecommuting an attractive benefit. Finally, new technologies have made working from home a viable alternative. With the advent of high speed modems, fax machines, voice mail, powerful personal computers, electronic mail and the like, workers can now perform their jobs without losing touch with employers and customers.
ADVANTAGES OF TELECOMMUTING
Both employers and employees have found telecommuting to be a mutually beneficial arrangement in many instances. Proponents cite several positive factors in particular:
Happier employees. Telecommuting arrangements can help workers realize a general improvement in their personal "quality of life." They avoid long, stressful commutes, thus gaining more time for pleasurable activities and more flexibility for changeable tasks like child and elder care.
Increased retention of valued employees. Many businesses lose workers when those employees undergo significant life changes, such as starting a family or relocating to another region or state because of a spouse's career. Telecommuting is one way in which a business may be able to continue to utilize the services of an otherwise unavailable worker. It is also touted as a tool that permits workers to minimize use of "personal days" in instances where they have to stay home and care for a sick child, etc.
Increased employee productivity. Business studies and anecdotal evidence both suggest that employees are often much more productive at home, where "drop-in" interruptions and meetings are not distractions. Instead, the teleworker can focus on the job at hand. Of course, productivity at home is directly related to the employee's level of self-discipline and abilities.
Cost savings. Businesses can often gain significant savings in facilities costs like office space and parking space requirements when staff members telecommute.
DISADVANTAGES OF TELECOMMUTING
But while telecommuting programs have been highly successful for many businesses of all shapes, sizes, and industry orientations, there are potential pitfalls associated with them. Commonly cited drawbacks include the following:
Lack of oversight. Direct supervision of teleworkers is not possible.
Diminished productivity. Some people are unable to be productive in at-home work settings, either because of family distractions or their own limited capacity to focus on tasks when more pleasurable activities (bicycling, gardening, watching television, etc.) beckon.
Security problems. "The remote access needs of telecommuters and other mobile staff … create a hole in security walls with every connection," cautioned Kevin McNeely in Providence Business News. "Procedures should be implemented to allow employee access while keeping out unwanted intruders. This includes periodically updated password protection and informing employees concerning the need for remote access security."
Isolation. "The freedom of working alone comes with a price—the burden of solitude," commented one executive in Association Management. "We all have wished for days where people would just leave us alone, and with telework, we get our wish—in spades." Partial teleworking arrangements, in which the employee spends a portion of each week (1-3 days) in the office and the remainder working from home, can sometimes be an effective means of addressing this problem.
Erosion of company culture and/or departmental morale. Many businesses include certain employees who have a major positive impact on the prevailing office environment. When these employees enter into telecommuting programs, their absence is often deeply felt by the staff members left behind. In some cases, this departure from the company's everyday operations can even have a deleterious effect on the operation's overall culture.
Loss of "brainstorming" ability. "Given that much of the value added to the production process in Western economies is at the 'knowledge' end of the spectrum, the dispersal of brains could be a problem," wrote Richard Thomas in Management Today. "The informal bouncing around of ideas is difficult, or even impossible, without the face-to-face contact of a shared workplace."
Perceived damage to career. A common perception among employees of businesses that embrace teleworking options is that telecommuters are placed at a disadvantage in terms of career advancement and opportunity. Certainly, some professional avenues—such as supervisor positions—may be shut off to workers who want to continue telecommuting, but employers should make every effort to avoid an "out of sight, out of mind" perspective from taking shape.
Legal vulnerability. Some analysts have expressed concern that some employer liability issues regarding telecommuting practices have yet to be completely settled. They cite issues such as employer liability for home-office accidents under common law; applicability of the employer's insurance coverage when they work at home; and responsibility for equipment located in the home as particular concerns.
INSTITUTING A TELECOMMUTING PROGRAM
Experts cite several key elements in creating and maintaining a successful telecommuting policy in your business. First, business owners and/or managers should make sure that such a program will actually benefit their company's ability to efficiently address its various operational needs. For example, some positions require an extensive on-site presence. These range from management positions to those in which face-to-face communication with clients or other members of the workforce is imperative. Consultants urge employers to consider telecommuting proposals on a position-by-position basis, rather than adopting "one size fits all" parameters.
Companies should also conduct extensive research before buying and implementing new technologies necessary to institute a telecommuting program. Information technology (IT) personnel can be particularly useful in shaping program policies and anticipating remote workplace needs of teleworkers. In addition, you should consider the impact of telecommuting on other departments, both in terms of operational efficiency and morale.
Business owners should draft specific guidelines and policies for any telecommuting program. These policies may delineate reporting guidelines, delivery schedules for completing and submitting work, selected hours during which employee guarantees availability, employee performance evaluation criteria, and telecommuting work option evaluation criteria. Once such a program has been put in place, it is essential that it be actively monitored. Analysts urge business owners and managers to maintain open lines of communication with teleworkers, so that problems can be addressed in a timely manner.
Finally, business owners and managers need to recognize that some employees are better suited than others to thrive in a telecommuting program. Prospective workers should be self-motivated; self-disciplined; and possessed of good problem-solving skills and communication skills (both written and verbal). They should also have a home environment which will enable them to maintain or exceed the levels of productivity they attain in an office setting.