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.
see also Flexible Work Arrangements; Home-Based Business; Hoteling; Mobile Office
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Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI
Telecommuting or teleworking, the ability to work remotely with the aid of portable computers, high-speed telecommunication links, and mobile pocket devices, has become increasingly prevalent in the modern business environment. Private and public organizations are adopting telecommuting for a variety of reasons, including global competition, increased productivity, as a recruitment tool, an expanded workforce, staffing flexibility, business continuity if disaster hits, environmental standards, and facility costs.
The key to a successful home-based office is to structure it so that customers and business associates sense no difference in work performed in the home and work done in a regular office. Unlike those who run their businesses exclusively from home, the telecommuter must have
access to all information and resources required at both locations, and these arrangements must be cost-effective.
This alternative workplace strategy that ensures increased costs savings, more efficient use of space, and higher levels of worker productivity offers a profound opportunity to benefit both the employee and the company. Yet a successful telecommuting program requires the combination of a motivated manager, a motivated employee, and a well-defined task.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF TELECOMMUTING
Several different types of telecommuting are outlined below:
- Working at home: The most popular method, in which the employee designates workspace at home to conduct business functions
- Satellite office: Remote office location, usually placed near a large concentration of employee residences, which allows employees at a single company to share common office space and reduces the time and expense of the commute to and from the main office facility
- Neighborhood work center: Provides workspace for employees of different companies in one location; each company housing employees at such a location is usually responsible for the administrative and technical requirements of its employees
- Mobile teleworking: The newest form of telecommuting—the telecommuter's office may be an airport, a hotel, or a car; these mobile telecommuters are constantly on the road and use technology to link to the office
NUMBER OF TELECOMMUTERS IS GROWING
Today's knowledge workers are ideal candidates for splitting time between a central office and a home office. Telecommuting has increased at a brisk pace; about 20 percent of the U.S. workforce telework. According to a survey conducted by the International Telework Association Council, published in 2005, there were approximately 44.4 million teleworkers. Between 2003 and 2004, the number of telecommuters grew at a rate of 7.5 percent.
Research conducted in 2002 on the use of broadband Internet technology indicated that employees equipped with this high-speed access work more flexibly and productively at home and other locations than workers who use dial-up. This rapidly evolving technology has allowed employees to engage more frequently in accessing the Internet for information, exchanging large files, and working as a group.
Some of the "telecommuting-friendly" employers who are open to this work flexible work arrangements include Aetna, American Airlines, AT&T, Bank of America, Baxter Healthcare, Cigna, Cisco Systems, Citibank, IBM, John Hancock Insurance, Lanier Worldwide, MCI, Nike, Oracle, Sprint, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, and Xerox. The companies have indicated that many of their employees telecommute, but the decision for telecommuting must be made jointly between the employer and employee.
WORKPLACE AND WORKFORCE FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
The philosophy that people are the most important element of a company has created a new awareness of the necessity to adapt the work facility to the needs of employees. Although telecommuting is one of the fastestgrowing business trends, not every line of work is conducive to it. Telecommuting has been common for sales staffs that spend most of their time on the road, but this arrangement can work for many other employees involved with office activities.
Technology-driven corporations are in the forefront of telecommuting. Telecommuting is ideal for such individuals as computer programmers, sales representatives, technical writers, public relations officials, news reporters, clerical assistants, computer systems analysts, engineers, researchers, customer service representatives, pieceworkers, and data-entry clerks.
Areas of concern include feelings of isolation, exploitation of workers, working too much, supervision, access to files, and performance evaluation. Union officials do not want telecommuting to lead to "home work" equaling "electronic sweatshops." The implementation of telecommuting in Los Angeles County, California, led to the filing of three notices of alleged unfair labor practices by Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, which represented half of the county's permanent employees. The fundamental contention was that home workers are less protected from such potential abuses as violations of over-time standards and payment for work on a piecework basis. In Japan, piecework is done by telecommuters, with a truck coming by once a week to pick up the products.
A major stumbling block for companies is created by managers who do not trust that employees will work unless under direct supervision. The adage "While the cat's away, the mouse will play!" applies. The major problem employees face with telecommuting is fear that they will not be remembered when promotion time comes around. To address these concerns, both employers and employees must be involved in the development of the telecommuting program and learn to measure productivity in terms other than office hours.
Telecommuting benefits both the company and employees in many ways. The most frequently mentioned advantages of telecommuting include greater productivity, improved information turnaround, better communication, reduced office space requirements, greater staffing flexibility, lower employee turnover, and an expanded employee market. A 2004 research project sponsored by the AT&T Foundation and Cisco Systems, demonstrates how teleworking benefits a company by enabling employees to continue working when faced with disaster-related interruptions.
Telecommuting provides opportunities for new parents, physically challenged individuals, the elderly, people living in remote locations, and individuals taking care of housebound persons to join or remain in the workforce. Telecommuting is seen as a potential means of employing and retaining valuable employees by helping them balance work and home demands as well as reducing commuting costs and time. The major advantages of telecommuting are the reduced time and expense of commuting and the increased flexibility of working hours. Telecommuting is becoming a viable work alternative for many and can attract more individuals into the workforce and retain them. The information age brings a myriad of changes that can be viewed either as a threat or an advantage.
SELECTION OF PERSONNEL
Successful telecommuting requires a cooperative arrangement between managers and employees. Managers must select individuals who are suited to working at home and jobs that can be completed at home. Since it is difficult to monitor the employee and the workplace, the manager must be involved in designing and overseeing the telecommuting program. A trusting relationship between the employer and the employee is essential.
To have potential for success, employees should be self-directed, self-motivated, productive, well organized, and very knowledgeable about their job. Potentially successfully supervisors should trust employees, have a positive attitude toward telecommuting, be flexible, and be able to communicate well.
EQUIPMENT COSTS AND PROCUREMENT
Any equipment that works well in the office also works well in the home office. The costs of the equipment and supplies are usually borne by the employer. According to Cisco, the cost for setting up a teleworker is between $500 and $1,500, depending on the technology needed. If a notebook computer is included, the cost could go up to $2,500.
The recommended equipment includes a notebook computer with a docking station at the office; all-in-one system (scanner, printer, fax machine, copier); quality phone and voice mail; dedicated phone lines; and Internet access. Telecommuters may also be set up with Webconferencing capabilities allowing them to sit in on office meetings via modem and webcam, or at the very least, a conference call.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TRAINING
As economic and demographic changes force telecommuting to become a reality for organizations and employees, there is a tremendous demand for training. A curriculum for a successful telecommuting program should include the following subjects: keyboarding, work environment, office automation, time management, performance-based evaluation, decision making, and ethics.
According to the City of Los Angeles Telecommuting Task Force report, training for home telecommuters should include how to set up a home office, how to start and stop working, how to control interruptions, and how to develop a results orientation to work assignments. The training for supervisors should include establishing performance standards for telecommuters, troubleshooting potential problems, and selecting the right employee and the right task.
As the global economy in the information age evolves, telecommuting will increasingly become a popular work style. Many companies are turning to telecommuting to solve the dilemma of recruiting and retaining quality employees, controlling costs of office space, and meeting environmental standards. The major national advantages for telecommuting include savings in gasoline, a reduction in pollution, a decrease in traffic congestion, and lower highway accident rates.
For a successful telecommuting program, top-down support is vital, employee support is necessary, screening is important, training is essential, and guidelines are required. Major capital investments are not necessary. Telecommuting should be customized for each agency, each employee, and each task.
As Peter Drucker summed up telecommuting, "Commuting to office work is obsolete. It is now infinitely easier, cheaper, and faster to … move information … to where the people are" (Drucker, 1993, p. 340).
see also Office Technology ; Telecommunications
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International Telework Association and Council. (2004, September 2). Work at home grows in past year by 7.5% in U.S. Use of broadband for work at home grows by 84% [Press Release]. Retrieved December 14, 2005, from http://www.workingfromanywhere.org/news/pr090204.htm
Pratt, Joanne H. (2003, April). Teleworking comes of age with broadband. Retrieved December 14, 2005, from http://www.workingfromanywhere.org/pdf/TWA2003_Executive_Summary.pdf
Telecommute friendly companies. (2005). Retrieved December 14, 2005, from http://www.2work-at-home.com/telecommute.shtml
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Carol Larson Jones
tel·e·com·mute / ˌteləkəˈmyoōt/ • v. [intr.] [usu. as n.] (telecommuting) work from home, communicating with the workplace using equipment such as telephones, fax machines, and modems. DERIVATIVES: tel·e·com·mut·er n.