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Telecommuting: Solid Ammunition but No Silver Bullet

Sometimes, the office seems like the worst place to get work done. There can be so many distractions, from ringing phones to questioning colleagues to endless streams of meetings. It's no wonder, then, that advocates of telecommuting see it as a way to boost productivity and engagement. Telecommuting also has its fair share of drawbacks, however, so it makes sense for employers to carefully weigh their options before adopting or rejecting telecommuting arrangements.

On the positive side of the scale, there's plenty of evidence to support those who advocate telecommuting. Three-quarters (76%) of firms responding to a recent Institute for Corporate Productivity survey said flexible work arrangements boost morale, and 64% believe they increase retention of top talent. The 2008 survey, which included data from 560 organizations, found that employees in professional roles are the ones who most frequently request such arrangements, suggesting that organizations can help satisfy some of their most talented people by implementing flexible work programs. Of the organizations surveyed, over a third (38%) specifically offer telecommuting.

 However, while telecommuting might improve morale among workers who use such arrangements, their office-bound associates might be more dissatisfied. In fact, 36% of the firms responding to the survey noted that employees who do not or cannot use flexible work arrangements are frustrated if such arrangements exist, and 20% say such arrangements can frustrate managers. Some managers are reluctant to use them because keeping tabs on a virtual workforce can be harder than managing those close at hand (King, 2007). These findings are supported by another study that recently appeared in the journal Human Relations. Timothy Golden, associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, studied 240 professionals from one medium-sized business and drew the conclusion that the greater the number of telecommuters, the less contented the office workers were with their jobs (Cooke, 2008).

A reduction in personal interactions can also be a disadvantage of telecommuting. In the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger (2008) notes that such "bellwether" organizations as AT&T, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and the Department of the Interior are all calling some of their telecommuters back into the "real" office. One reason: the need for more face-to-face collaboration that boosts innovation and engagement.

But, before employers assume that telecommuting is associated with too many problems, they should recognize that telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements are unlikely to go away anytime soon. When respondents to the survey were asked if their organizations would allow more or fewer flexible work arrangements in the coming year, 45% said more and just 7% said fewer. Telecommuting may not be a silver bullet, but it can be useful ammunition in the battle against turnover and disengagement.

The trick is to know when to use telecommuting and how best to implement it. There are various organizations from which managers can learn. For example, Sun Microsystems has reportedly realized a five-year savings of $300 million to $500 million, largely in real estate costs. This is tied to the fact that the company started encouraging employees to work from home and from temporary offices. Its "Sun Ray" workstations played a part. The workstations are laptops for their home-based employees; they contain no software or operating system and send all files automatically to company servers (King, 2007).

Cable TV firm Cox Communications saves an estimated $3,400 per year for each of its 2,000 call center agents by allowing them to work from home. Cox mitigated a common teleworking hazard by using Web-based technology that lets workers use their own computer and broadband connection to access the company's secure server-based software. Anything workers enter on the Cox Website is stored only on the firm's servers and not on the individual's home computer. To keep the company culture going, teleworkers are required to meet two to four times a month at a regional office and participate in occasional videoconferences. Cox has found it easier to hire call center personnel if they can telecommute. It also saves money on real estate and office equipment (Mullins, 2007).

Business software firm CorasWorks sees telecommuting as a positive tool for employee retention, pointing out that workers are free to relocate as they please and to work as flexibly as their individual schedules require. To make the teleworking structure work, CorasWorks carefully screens potential employees through telephone and face-to-face interviews, assessing an applicant's potential for working independently. The company provides stipends to help workers set up, sustain and supply home offices. Intensive training gives employees the information they need to succeed in their jobs, and managers are accessible for support by phone when needed. Phone and computer-based meetings are held regularly and, on occasion, in-person gatherings are scheduled as well ("Truly Virtual," 2006).

Generally speaking, employers can reduce the risks associated with telecommuting by developing clear policies and providing specific training for both telecommuters and the managers who oversee them. Remote workers must have both the necessary technology and strong information security measures to work effectively from home. Also critical are reporting systems and accountability measures that gauge the impact telecommuting is having on worker productivity.

Despite the risk factors associated with telework programs, many employers agree that the benefits of telecommuting in a global market often outweigh the challenges and that incorporating a well-managed telecommuting program can be an effective way to create a productive workforce and retain talented employees.

Documents referenced in this article include:

  • Cooke, K. (2008, January 11). "Telecommuting not so great for those left in office."  Reuters.
  • Families and Work Institute. (2007, January 25). Making work "work": New ideas from the winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility, p. 10.
  • King, R. (2007, February 12). "Working from home: It's in the details." BusinessWeek.
  • Mullins, R. (2007, November 14). "How Cox Communications joined the teleworking revolution." Network World.
  • Shellenbarger, S. (2008, March 4). "Some companies rethink telecommuting." CareerJournal.
  • "Truly virtual workplace reduces costs, turnover. "(2006, April 1). Best Practices in HR, 7.