Does telecommuting really work?

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Genevieve Roberts

Telecommuting gives employees flexible work arrangements and can lower the cost of housing employees. But how well does this arrangement work?

Telecommuting is typically defined as a flexible work arrangement where employees work out of the office full or part time, all or portion of the workweek, while traveling, or on-site at a client’s office.  Although an estimated 45 million U.S. employees telecommuted in 2006, it is not for everyone. Some jobs are better suited for it, especially those where the employee can work independently, doesn’t need a lot of face-to-face interaction, and where the manager can measure the teleworker’s results or output.

In today’s current work environment there are many reasons companies are considering or have recently implemented more telecommuting options for their employees. 
For employees these reasons include:

• Improved quality of life and work/family balance
• Increased autonomy
• Increased efficiency
• Increased flexibility
• Increasing costs associated with commuting to work — gas, traffic stress, wear and tear on automobiles, buses etc., increased pollution (carbon emissions)

For employers:
• Lowered costs of housing employees
• Increased applicant pools
• Improved employee retention
• Lowered rate of absenteeism
• Increased employee productivity
• Increased flexibility

(*These benefits were identified by a study conducted by Penn Sate University in a 2007 survey of over 12,000 employees.)

Telecommuting does, however, pose challenges. The Penn State study identified just as many reasons why companies and employees are hesitant to jump into telecommuting. These challenges include:

For employees:
• Perceived career hindrance
• Isolation and lack of interaction with coworkers
• Household distractions
• Less living space

For employers:
• Management resistance and skepticism
• Culture change from evaluating hours worked to results
• Security of data
• Diverse wireless technologies
• Training employees

Some supervisors sometimes believe workers will work less when out of sight.  However, the study found just the opposite to be true:  both employees and employers noted increased productivity and efficient levels. Another telecommuting challenge is that workers in the office can feel alienated. Managers should make efforts to grant them more autonomy, schedule face-to-face meetings with telecommuters and ensure all employees are included in office events.

Even some work environments that were previously thought to be unsuitable for telecommuting have broken barriers through advanced technology.  Specifically, companies with call centers have created a new term called “homeshoring” that refers to moving offshore call centers into homes of employees.  The applicant pool becomes much larger because employers can tap people who cannot or chose not to work outside their homes. 

There are an estimated 112,000 home agents today in the U.S. and that is expected to grow to more than 300,000 by 2010.  Some companies who have made this switch work successfully include Alpine Access, Live Ops and Jet Blue. Jet Blue for example, employs about 1,500 at-home agents. About 70 percent of these agents are stay-at-home moms.  They have found that the agents have better retention rates, better scheduling options, good customer service and can work in any weather. 

Here in Virginia, our Department of Taxation, through the work of Robin Mack and her team, successfully implemented what they call “Teleworking”.  They created a program that offered 75 percent of their work force the eligibility to work one day from home remotely.  Ninety percent of those who participated in the program said their productivity was better because of interruptions, while 66 percent of their managers did.  Customer service levels also increased for the teleworker group compared to those working on their contact center.  Teleworkers did miss interactions with others and managers cited scheduling meetings as the biggest challenge.

For a listing of other companies who have this flexible work arrangements work check out the Families and Work Institute website http://www.familiesandwork.org and its 2008 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work.

Given all the pros and cons described it is not surprising that more companies are cautious about telecommuting. Here are some tips to consider as you implement a Telecommuting policy:
1. Base performance on results, not hours worked
2. Establish clear policy and expectations
3. Establish channels for face-to-face communication
4. Work collaboratively
5. Include telecommuters in office events and meetings
6. Provide effective timely feedback and coaching
7. Recognize when it is not working

Who knows, maybe the PJs you get for Christmas this year will be your new “business casual” outfit.

Genevieve Roberts is managing principal of Richmond-based Titan Group LLC and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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