Telecommuting is a practice in which an employee works at a location—often his or her 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 networks, etc.)
Advances with communications devices and computer networking systems have made it possible for more people to work from remote locations and for telecommuting to become an ever-more feasible option for many companies. During the 1990s the number of companies offering employees the opportunity to telecommute—if not full-time, on a part-time basis—increased rapidly and became very popular within some industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a report entitled simply Telecommuting, data they collect in the Current Population Survey do not identify telecommuters as such. This makes getting clear statistics about the size of the telecommuting workforce very difficult. Further complicating the task of counting telecommuters is the fact that many telecommuting arrangements are informal as opposed to formal telecommuting agreements. Informal telecommuting involves the periodic working from home as projects or family needs dictate. Formal telecommuting arrangements are those in which an employee regularly works from an off-site location.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, most telecommuters belong to one of four major occupational groups. These broad occupational categories include professional specialists, executives, administrative staffers, and managers. From an industrial standpoint, the service industry stands above all others in terms of the number of telecommuters it employs. The spread of telecommuting was so popular in the 1990s that many predicted that its numbers would continue to grow rapidly. But, the recession of 2001 slowed growth. And, as The Kiplinger Letter explains, "telecommuting is losing some appeal, putting the lie to forecasts that by 2006 some 70 million U.S. workers would quit heading to offices. One reason: Telecommuting is maxing out at industries most open to it, publishing, telecom, finance, where nearly everyone who can already does'¦. The tough economic climate is dampening employee ardor, too, Workers fear that being out of sight makes them more vulnerable to layoffs. Employers trimming office and relocation costs are still enticed, though."
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 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.
Cost of added security requriements. Telecommuting arrangements usually require some form of added openness in a company's computer networks. Consequently, additional steps must be taken to secure networks in ways that allow remote access by some while protecting against unwanted intruders. These measures necessitate a cost that may not be required if employees did not work remotely.
Isolation. The freedom of working alone comes with a price, namely the burden of isolation. Some people deal with this trade-off more easily than others. 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. In the information age, much of the value added to the production process is in the form of 'knowledge' and the dispersal of key employees may make it less likey that these knowledgeable workers will interact vigorously as a part of the normal daily exchange in a workplace. The informal bouncing around of ideas is difficult, or even impossible, without the face-to-face contact of a common 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 his or her 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.
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