Telecommuting is generally defined as using technology to travel to one's job, rather than physically commuting to it. For instance, telecommuters might log onto home computers and dial in to their company's computer system to perform the normal tasks of their jobs. But it is important to note that telecommuters are still employees of a company. Those who work from home running their own businesses are not telecommuters; they are more appropriately referred to as home-based business owners. Telecommuters and home-based business owners share many of the same needs, however, such as ready access to customers and reliable connectivity to the outside world.
Telecommuting is a rapidly growing trend in American business. The number of companies offering telecommuting as an option to employees increased from 6 percent in 1993 to 33 percent in 1998, according to a survey in Business Week. Telecommuting is expected to continue to grow as new occupations that are shaped by modern communications come into existence. "Workers in newly emerging jobs won't have to fight past patterns or expectations," Peter Coffee wrote in PC Week. "'Telepresence' via fax, e-mail and (increasingly) video will be their norm and not an awkward innovation." In fact, some experts believe that telecommuting may be only the first step in the creation of increasingly sophisticated working environments, as information technologies continue to change the way people work.
A number of factors have contributed to the trend toward telecommuting. Lisa 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 that demographic changes within the American workforce are a factor in the growth of telecommuting. These experts 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 has made telecommuting an increasingly attractive option.
Perhaps the most important factor in the growth of telecommuting is that improved technology has made working from home viable. 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 virtually anywhere without losing touch with employers and customers. Indeed, PC Week reported that "virtual office" technology allowed more than 11 million workers to telecommute at least one day per month in 1998.
Both employers and employees have found telecommuting beneficial, often mutually so. Among the advantages cited by workers is the ability to avoid long, stressful commutes. The sheer convenience of commuting across the hall rather than across town is compelling reason enough for some. In addition, staying at home to work means the telecommuter's workday is shorter, leaving more time for pleasurable activities and more flexibility for changeable tasks such as child and elder care. A study conducted by AT&T showed that 75 percent of telecommuters felt increased satisfaction with their personal and family lives. Employers find these advantages work for them, too, by making it easier to retain valuable employees.
According to Nation's Business, another advantage of telecommuting is increased employee effectiveness. Initially, employers feared productivity downturns with home-based workers, but actually the opposite has been true (although there are exceptions, of course). Telecommuters face fewer distractions from hectic office environments and spend less time in meetings. They also tend to have increased morale, which translates to fewer sick days and lower turnover rates for employers.
Another quantifiable benefit for employers is the reduced need for space. Office space and parking space requirements can be curtailed if a portion of one's staff telecommutes. Jack Nilles, president of JALA International, a Los Angeles-based management consulting firm, estimates that companies can save $11,000 per year for each employee who telecommutes two days a week. Of course, companies may incur some costs upon implementing a telecommuting program. For example, they may need to supply workers with computers, modems, remote access software, fax machines, and additional phone lines for their home offices. But these one-time costs are likely to be much smaller than the potential annual savings.
Although telecommuting offers numerous potential advantages to both employers and employees, it is not appropriate for everyone. For example, some people lack the self-discipline that is needed for working at home. They may be distracted by children and spouses who find it difficult to understand that telecommuters are still working even though they are at home. Other people may go to the opposite extreme and find that nonwork activities are crowded out of their lives. In effect, their home becomes their office so they work all the time. This problem is most likely to occur when telecommuting is considered an experiment. In that case, Coffee explained, home workers may feel "constant pressure to make up for perceived lack of commitment to the job by outproducing coworkers." Finally, some telecommuters find that they miss the social interaction that takes place in an office environment.
It is important to realize that telecommuting affects the entire office, not just the employees who spend some or all of their time working from home. It transforms the social interactions between coworkers and requires adjustments from people still in the office. Telecommuting also presents challenges for supervisors. Some managers tend to feel suspicious toward telecommuters. If they cannot physically observe an employee at work, they are concerned that that employee is not really working. In addition, some managers worry that by allowing their staffs to telecommute, they will eliminate the need for their own jobs. After all, when top executives visit an office and see mostly empty cubicles, they might wonder why they are paying someone to supervise a nonexistent staff.
As Lin Grenshing-Pophal explained in an article for HRMagazine, training can help companies overcome the potential pitfalls involved in telecommuting. She recommends training the telecommuters, training their supervisors, and then training both groups together. Ideally, telecommuters and managers should discuss their expectations for their new working relationship and figure out exactly how the arrangement will work before a telecommuting program is implemented. The main challenge for supervisors involves learning to manage for results rather than for time spent on the job. "In a telecommuting relationship, time is not important, and this is one of the harder lessons for supervisors to learn," Grenshing-Pophal wrote. "In training managers to supervise telecommuters, experts say that learning to make the transition from managing time to managing projects is critical and will determine the success of an organization's telecommuting program." It may also be helpful to train employees who will remain in the office in order to prevent them from feeling jealous and help them be supportive of telecommuters.
In an article for Entrepreneur, Heather Page noted that companies should create a written policy to cover telecommuting. This document should detail who is eligible for the program, outline what is expected of telecommuters, and provide a list of the equipment and services that the company will supply. It may also be helpful to include a checklist to help employees determine whether their job—and personality—is well suited to telecommuting. Finally, Page recommends that companies create systems for measuring the effectiveness of their telecommuting programs and making changes as needed.
Telecommuting will have far-reaching implications for all business owners in the future. As the labor pool shrinks, businesses large and small will compete for workers, many of whom will ask for the telecommuting option. Fortunately, telecommuting has advantages for everyone involved. It saves businesses money by reducing space needs, turnover, and sick time, and improves employee morale by increasing personal time and flexibility. Of course, telecommuting also involves some potential pitfalls. For example, supervisors may find it difficult to deal with employees who rarely come to the office. But training sessions and written policies can help companies overcome the problems and reap the benefits associated with telecommuting.
SEE ALSO : Supervision
[ Kristin Kahrs ,
updated by Laurie Collier Hillstrom ]
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Coffee, Peter. "More Time at Home or Less Time at Work?" PC Week, 18 January 1999, 47.
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