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.