Telecommuting Now and Forever

Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine set the goal of having 20% of the state’s workforce telecommuting by 2010. Other states should follow suit. Pro or con?

Pro: Everybody Wins

A switch to working at home frees employees from the frustration of commuting—23 minutes each way on average in the U.S.—and those time-wasting watercooler conversations with coworkers wanting to discuss last night’s American Idol. Telecommuters, now also called teleworkers, are 40% more productive than their office-based counterparts, according to a Gartner Group survey.

Stationing workers at home either full- or part-time not only generates more revenue for businesses but also means fewer desks to buy and less square footage to rent. Telecommuters, in turn, can often use their home offices as tax deductions. They spend less on dry cleaning, car maintenance, and fuel—and spare the environment excess auto emissions.

Of course, those with young children generally still have to hire babysitters to keep the kids entertained while Mother or Dad concentrates on work, but if an emergency crops up, a parent is on site and can dispense with the problem faster than someone who has to hightail it home from headquarters.

For businesses of any size, the offer of flexible working arrangements makes for a powerful recruitment tool. Instead of having to limit itself to candidates within the typical 40-mile commuting radius, human resources can extend boundaries across counties, states, or oceans.

Today especially, this enlarged pool of prospective employees translates into a crucial business advantage. With baby boomers starting to retire and a general shortage of certain technological skills, corporations and small businesses can use the flexibility of telecommuting to lure qualified employees.

And employees who telecommute offer businesses better "continuity of operations," according to Jack Heacock, vice-president of the advocacy group the Telework Coalition. "Weather problems and transit strikes don’t keep anyone from working at home."

Con: Home Alone

The disadvantages of telecommuting fall most heavily on the home workers themselves. Many find themselves feeling isolated, with their only personal interaction consisting of a few words exchanged with their letter carrier or UPS (UPS) deliverer.

And while in-office birthday parties and watercooler chitchat at headquarters may seem like a waste of time, they can foster camaraderie and friendships that make employees feel loyal.

Those little office confabs can also include enough business talk to give birth to new ideas that help the company’s bottom line. And what about the informal "hey, what do you think about this idea?" that on-site employees can yell to one another from their desks? It’s a lot less likely to happen via instant messenger.

The cost of the technology needed to accommodate telecommuters amounts to another minus for the business. Those employees who work at home part-time require both desktop and laptop computers. Information-technology staff members invest hours in talking home workers through crises on the phone—problems that would often take only a minute to solve if they could simply stop by the employee’s station.

And when telecommunicating fails to remedy a major computer crash, IT folks have to trek to the employee’s home, an inconvenient and uneconomical proposition.

Another weakness of telecommuting: The concept only works for employees who can function diligently without supervision. Many an on-site worker has dallied in online shopping and other time-wasting activities on the Internet. Imagine how tempting those distractions—as well as the siren song of Oprah and Wii—can feel to someone home alone.

Telecommuting’s biggest employer drawback falls on the backs of middle managers. "The corporate suite will send down some lofty statement about giving employees flexibility," says employment consultant Liz Ryan. "But the reality for frontline managers is they can’t always afford the time it takes to implement such a program."

—R.R.

Reader Comments

StellaCommute

Call me crazy, but a lot of those "cons" seem to be problems that are remedied with the appropriate use of technology. Need casual encounters with co-workers? Get everybody using instant messaging, inexpensive desktop videoconferencing, and other informal interaction tools. They work well for people who are in the office, or far afield.

Tech support? Remote management tools connect IT staff directly with their users' desktops, whether they're down the hall or two time zones away. Short of a total hard drive failure, you can do anything you need to, pretty much, with tools that are available right now.

The lure of goofing off is there whether you're on-site or at home. People can surf their NCAA brackets, go shopping, kill time getting that fourth cup of coffee, or just make the rounds. Managers who have gold-brickers have them in and out of the office, and managing them is a challenge for everyone. Again, technologies to virtually pop in on workers more frequently without the hassle of walking around can help with this task. Those who don't produce results should find other jobs.

As a full-time telecommuter, I find that I have as much interraction with my customers, colleagues, and co-workers as I can handle, and the efficiency of being able to move quickly from online meeting to online meeting with a click of a mouse means that I'm in contact but getting things done faster and better.

Dave

Oh great. State employees are lazy, and now they can stay home and sleep in late. Why don't we just outsource those jobs to India?

Joe

Dave thinks I'm lazy? My colleagues and I work for the people of the great state of Maine, and we do work, are dedicated, and love our jobs. Anyone want to start a collection to give Dave a one-way ticket to India?

Cliff

From a societal point of view, telecommuting is one —if not the only—solution to the current and future problems of gridlock, pollution, and climate change. We certainly can't build enough roads to keep pace with development, while mass transit options are expensive and prone to the political winds. So what are we left with? Telecommuting...or maybe flying cars?

RV

I think technology is a great idea. It breaches the barrier of the global economy with e-mails, e-commerce, e-business, e-banking, and all the e's you can think about. Now you can get as far as a PhD via e-classroom (Webcam and videoconference capability). Are we aiming at the e-meeting with our associates in Japan, and putting airlines out of business? Perhaps not.

Anyway, working from home is a great idea. Even the federal government is involved, to save on office space rental. Is there a chip in the laptop that they give the employees to track hours worked? I do not know.

I see nothing but advantages for any electronic accomplishments, other than additional use of electronic energy. Consider the reduction in fuel, emissions, global warming, frustration with traffic, etc. Yes, we can live without those.

Ron

As someone who has telecommuted for better than a decade, I can tell everyone that I would not trade going back to the office just for some "water cooler talk," if that's the benefit received. While it does take an independent individual to be successful at telecommuting, there are many more benefits to be reaped than cons to be endured. Just the freedom of not having bosses watching over you is worth it by itself.

Logic

About 70% of U.S. energy consumption goes toward transportation. Telecommuting is the one true magic bullet for this country's addiction to foreign oil. The "cons" outlined seem a little bizarre, frankly—"isolated" from the office slackers who gossip all day? That's a pro, not a con.

A good thing to consider, too, is a hybrid approach. People can telecommute 1 to 3 days per week for getting work done, then be in the office the other days so they can attend meetings, birthday parties, American Idol discussions, and other staples of American corporate office life.

Jordan

If I can telecommute with my current job, I'd buy a house in the beautiful country for 1/3 of the price in the city. Wireless broadband (air card) services are available even in the countryside. That would be so cool.

Logic

Giving it more thought, I think the main reason we'll see resistance to telecommuting is that it will take away the raison d'etre of middle management. If we're brutally honest with ourselves, a lot of what middle managers do today is point to a cluster of cubicles and say, "I manage those people." It's pretty easy for knowledge workers to self-manage now. I'd say that's often how stuff truly gets done (I am a middle manager myself, I'm afraid).

If the actual doers are coordinating among themselves via e-mail, Wikis, and IM chat sessions, then there is really nothing left for middle managers to do. So for that reason (fear of obsolescence), I think we'll see a good deal of resistance to telecommuting yet. Unfortunately.

Howard

Criminals are treated as innocent until proven guilty, so why are so many employees who have reason to telecommute seen by skeptics as guilty until proven innocent? Perhaps, as with racial integration and air pollution, it will take governments to forge the first meaningful steps.

Maria

If you don't have a strong work ethic, you won't do enough work no matter where you are. We all know lazy people. But those of us who are diligent, take pride in our work, and have a high work ethic and loyalty for our company will actually appreciate the extra flexibility and work harder for you. Plus, foes of telecommuting don't address companies with dispersed employees. My manager sits in another state; those I work with are regularly in other geographic regions. Now, why sit in an office to be on the phone all day when I can sit at home and be more comfortable and save time, gas, and food costs, including all those extra lattes at the company café?

Kartik

I agree, the cons are very weak. They assume the telecommuter never goes to the office, when in reality a telecommuter is at home 1 to 4 days of the week, not all 5. Telecommuting is the natural trend, just like globalization is. It will happen no matter what, due to simple market forces. Real Estate costs, commuting time, and parenting duties are three obvious catalysts. Sure, employees that can thrive without supervision will do better than those that need more hand-holding. How is this different from any other time a new technology forced workers to adapt, where some adapted better than others?

Fiftysomething

Telecommuting is one great solution to decreasing environmental pollution. It is also one great solution to increasing family time. There is really not a good reason for employees to drive to a distant call center when the same service can be performed from a home office. If we can send these jobs to India, we can send them to the suburbs of America.

Jonas

Telecommuting is a great solution to urban sprawl. I would love to live in a bucolic small town. Establishing small workstations away from the home but nearby is a possible solution. I know firsthand that my 3-year-old makes it impossible to have a quiet environment, and my wife can be just as bad. Have any companies thought about transferring small divisions to small towns so they could operate as a collective unit?

Laura

I have been a virtual employee for three years for a global food contractor. I am part of the HR department. Like Maria, I have a boss in another state and time zone. My co-workers are in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Maine. My clients and candidates are all over the U.S. I never feel disconnected. In fact, I turn off the phone and laptop at night to "disconnect." It has been one of the most rewarding positions I have ever held. Hard work is rewarded with kudos on weekly conference calls, cash awards, and quarterly bonuses. We are kept abreast of department numbers with monthly reports that are discussed weekly. We have training Webinars monthly, and we give our input for new ideas. We are able to make visits to our client sites and quarterly meetings. At the same time, I'm able to fix my son an after-school snack, talk to him about his day for a few minutes, wear blue jeans, and buy a tank of gas every 10 days. I'm never stressed about traffic delays, and I love my job. It changes every day. Do I get sick of my house, which still isn't as clean as it should be? You bet! But there's always the weekend!

Steve, LA

Telecommuting is the simplest and quickest solution to many of our problems. When will the Feds get their heads out of the sand and promote this? The benefits are too many to list.

Janice

I recently asked for an office, after more than three years of telecommuting. I will continue to telecommute two days a week but have found that being in the office communicating with people triggers new ideas, and being home gives me a chance to ponder them. It's the best balance.

chelra78

I read this article because I would like to telecommute—at a job I've only been at for three months. Everything I do is Web-based, and my performance has been better than expected. I am looking for suggestions or a mentor to guide me through the process of presenting this to my manager and company president. We are a small company (40 employees, 30 of them full-time). The environment is very laid-back already, and a few of the salesmen (that have been with the company for years) work a few days at home. I am moving three hours away, and I would love to keep working for this company. Insights?

Lary

I have been a telecommuter since 1989, and I agree that it takes a special kind of person to do it. However, I am perfectly suited for telecommuting as evidenced by the fact that I am now a telecommuting knowledge-center manager for a Seattle think tank, specializing in information about telecommuting. As I sit in my home office in sunny St. Petersburg, Fla., I must say I am a happy camper.

K. Lewis

Hello, Larry and everyone. Larry, will you provide support information for me regarding telecommuting positions available?

Mocha Brown

I have worked at home as a freelancer. The downside to working from home is that the work never ends. When you walk out of an office, leaving files, things to do, and other obligations for the next day, you walk out thinking about all the things you have to do the next day. When it's home, and you begin to consider what needs to be done, it's there! And you feel compelled to do it. It's like never being off, and having the capacity and the venue to work longer and harder.
Mo'B

Deca

Hello, everyone. I work in a call center in Miami. I spend two hours a day in traffic, and I am also a mom of a toddler. I am reading the comments and wondering what Web sites would help me find out about telecommuting positions? All I have seen so far are scams. Can someone help?

HR

Regarding "Logic's" insight on middle management's resistance to change, one answer is a "results only work environment" whereby you manage your workforce by measuring results and not the time/activity. There will still be a need for this type of management.

Anna

I have been working in "virtual" for seven years. They call me the virtual concierge. I came up with this idea when I was pregnant, driving an arduous 80 miles and being in traffic for approximately four hours a day. I knew it was possible to do most everything I was doing at the hotel from home, but I needed to look like I was there, live and in real time, for all the hotel guests when they walked through that lobby door. With the magic of videoconferencing and the support of the hotel owners and management, the first virtual concierge was born. I have proven that one does not have to be physically there to deliver exceptional customer service, to be productive and efficient, and create human connections and bonds. I love working from home and can never go back to the traditional workplace or schedule. I still see and interact with all my colleagues and guests, but now it is face to interface. I am a vanguard and pioneer in virtual work applications and feel that it is the true balance that many are searching for.

DAPHNE

Where can I find a job at home?

ATL

I would love to work from home. I live in Atlanta, and it takes me at least an hour to get to work, although I am only 15 miles from my workplace. My university has a work/life policy that encourages alternative working arrangements including telecommuting, but I keep ending up with supervisors that "have to see" me and my co-workers in the office in order to feel that work is being done, never mind the fact the supervisors themselves take full advantage of the telecommuting option. I have answered university surveys on how work could be better and such and requested that more training needs to be in place for these managers. I would like to hear from others who may have faced the same issue. So how does one go about tackling this situation?

Trish

Laura: Would you mind telling me the name of the global food contractor that you are so lucky to be able to work from home with?

I have been looking for a work from home/telecommuting job for literally years now, and all I find on the Internet are scams. They all want money up front just to get started with them and then after they've successfully run off with your hard earned dollars (never to be gotten back of course), there is no job; there was never a job to begin with.

I reside in Texas and am looking for a work from home (legitimate) position and am able to devote many hours on a part-time basis as I live alone and also work a full-time job during the day.

Does your company offer any work from home/telecommuter positions to outsiders, or do you know of any company that does or would be willing to give an outsider a chance to perform for them?

Thank you.

Tom C

After working in the high tech industry for 15 years -- 95% plus of my work can be done from home -- I can tell you that "Logic" is spot on in his/her assessment; aside from a few persistent irrational responses from line workers, almost all the resistance to telecommuting comes from middle management, and I strongly suspect that the resistance comes from the fact that middle managers realize just how unnecessary they are in a truly self-organized and self-motivated workforce.

The irrational forces I mention are envy (it's amazing how bitter and angry people who cannot telecommute get about people who can), and the persistent belief that sitting in your jammies doing the same amount (or more) of work as someone in the office is somehow slacking off. Is being a "good worker" really just about appearances? Look busy, and get a raise? If so, that's a sad, sad comment on the state of the business world. We should praise and value true efficiency, not merely long hours, butts in chairs, or "looking busy."

heidi

"...Telecommuters, now also called teleworkers, are 40% more productive than their office-based counterparts, according to a Gartner Group survey."

What is the full name of report, date published, author? Sounds interesting, and I would like to read more.

Andi

I believe that if the same companies that outsource our American jobs feel comfortable doing business with "employees not being in the office," why should they worry about Americans working from home. I would love to work from home. I don't feel isolated at all. I have been a stay-at-home mom for five years. I love it, but with all our jobs going overseas to India and China, it's now time for me to go back to work. I feel the need to be here for my little girl, who is just now entering kindergarten and the need to bring in an income. I wish the government people would just listen to the American people who they represent, and do something about it, rather then think of some other country that needs assistance.

John

The best argument to make to your manager is to be judged on the results, not the hours you work or where you sit. What's more important to your manager? That the work be done in a specific location, between specific hours, or that the work be done on time, within budget, and to the specified level of quality? If you can come up with a way to measure what you do, and then agree on goals with your manager, that should go a long way toward getting past the "need to see" you doing the work. My managers (and I have several) allow me to telecommute because they know I will deliver my project on time and in budget.

Of course, there are a lot of other things to work out, such as your availability during work hours and who pays for your telephone/equipment/software/Internet access. I've been telecommuting for eight years, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Currently, I only go on-site a few times a year. We handle everything else over the phone or through e-mail and chat.

TeleworkResearchNetwork.com

The pros definitely outweigh the cons. And don't forget, it's not an all or nothing thing. Our just released whitepaper Telecommuting: Bottom Line Benefits (sponsored by Citrix GoToMeeting) quantifies the business, individual, and societal impact that half-time telecommuting could have on the nation and for small to mid-size companies.

Less than 2% of U.S. employees work from home the majority of the time (not including the self-employed), but 40% hold jobs that are compatible with telework. If those employees who wanted to (about 80%) did so just half of the time (roughly the national average for those who do):

The nation would:

- Save 289 million barrels of oil--equivalent to 37% of our Persian Gulf imports
- Reduce greenhouse gases by 53 million tons/year--27% of the President’s 2020 goal
- Reduce road travel by 115 billion miles/year saving $2 billion in road maintenance
- Reduce road congestion thereby increasing productivity for non-telecommuters as well
- Save 100,000 people from traffic-related injury or death
- Improve emergency responsiveness
- Reduce pollution from road work and new office construction
- Preserve open spaces
- Reduce the number of latchkey kids
- Alleviate the strain on our crumbling transportation infrastructure
- Reduce the offshoring of jobs and homeshore some that have already been lost
- Raise the standard of living in rural and disadvantaged areas
- Open new avenues for workforce retraining
- Reduce terrorism targets of opportunity

Businesses would:

- Increase productivity by over $235 billion
- Save $124 billion in real estate, electricity, and related costs
- Save $46 billion in absenteeism
- Save $31 billion in employee turnover
- Improve continuity of operations
- Avoid environmental sanctions, city access fees, etc.
- Improve work life balance and better address the needs of families, parents, and senior caregivers.
- Avoid the ‘brain drain’ effect of retiring boomers by allowing them to work flexibly
- Be able to recruit and retain the best people
- Better address the needs of disabled workers, rural residents, and military families

Individuals would:

- Achieve a better work-life balance
- Recoup 2-3 weeks of free time per year--time they’d have otherwise spent commuting
- Save $2,000-$7,000/year
- Save $15 billion at the pumps
- Suffer fewer illnesses

In total, that’s an economic impact of almost $650 billion a year!

At the TeleworkResearchNetwork.com we've synthesized 250 case studies, scholarly reviews, research papers, books, and other documents on telecommuting and related topics. And we've interviewed the nation’s largest and smallest virtual employers and their employees, corporate executives, telework advocates and naysayers, top researchers, legislators, legal representatives, leaders of successful telework advocacy programs in both the public and private sector, and venture capitalists who have invested in the remote work model. Our research has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and dozens of other publications.

Using the latest Census data, and assumptions from dozens of government and private sector sources, we've developed a model to quantify the economic, environmental, and societal potential on telecommuting for every, city, county, Congressional District, and state in the nation. It's been used by company and community leaders throughout the U.S. and Canada to quantify the extent to which telecommuting can reduce greenhouse gases and petroleum usage, save money, improve work-life balance, increase employee loyalty and turnover, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce highway congestion and traffic accidents. It's available free on the web at http://teleworkresearchnetwork.com/research/telework-savings-calculator/ along with a model that allows companies and communities to quantify their own potential telecommuting savings. Complex models, based on over two dozen parameters, are available to evaluate unique community and company situations.

More about telecommuting, the pros and cons, who's doing it, and other resources for companies, individuals and researchers are available at TeleworkResearchNetwork.com.

Our popular press book, Undress For Success--The Naked Truth About Working At Home (Wiley 2009) has won the praise of top telework and worklife advocates including WorldatWork, the Canadian Telework Association, the Telework Coalition, the Sloan Foundation, and the father of telecommuting, Jack Nilles.

"It's time to make the road less traveled the way to work."

Jim C.

I telecommute 3-4 days a month and find that I get more work done at home than I do at the office. In the office there are a lot of distractions that can limit the amount of time spent getting the job done. So when I have deadlines looming, I will work from home to avoid those distractions.

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!