Dynamics of Telecommuting

The Net was a 1995 movie starring Sandra Bullock as a woman working out of her home in Los Angeles for a company located in San Francisco. Nobody in her office knows what she looks like because she rolls out of bed, turns on her computer and her noisy modem, and goes to work beta-testing software for her employer. She even orders her pizza online! She saves so much money (by not commuting to work) that she schedules a vacation to a tropical locale where she sunbathes on the beach while drinking cocktails and, you guessed it, working on her laptop.

This movie gave the impression that someday in the not-too-distant future, most everyone would be telecommuting. Now we know that’s just not the case. Telecommuting is simply not being used to the degree we imagined it would be.

You may be surprised to learn that telecommuting was not a new idea in the 1990s. It had actually been around since the 1970s, and to this day, many credit Jack Nilles for coining the term in his 1973 book, The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the energy crisis that followed helped push telecommuting into the consciousness of management, but in the early days, it was a perk reserved for high-ranking, white-collar employees.

Fast forward to today. Telecommuting is still around and is recognized as a viable alternative to the traditional office setting. However, its reach is not extensive. Many small organizations still don’t allow it. Many large organizations allow it, but are beginning to walk their policies back. A few very large, high-profile organizations, such as Yahoo, Best Buy, and IBM, have discontinued their telecommuting programs and called all employees back to headquarters to resume working in a traditional office setting. Why? Not knowing how to successfully supervise telecommuters is one likely answer. Another possibility is that large organizations feel they need their teams to work together—physically—in order to be more agile so that they can compete with smaller companies.

Should we all do away with our telecommuting programs? After all, large companies lead the way, right? Hold the phone and back away from the memo! There are still many benefits to be had by allowing employees with good performance to telecommute, and the benefits are not one-sided. The changing times mean employers also stand to gain a lot from successful telecommuting programs. Let’s look at these benefits from both perspectives.

Employees benefit from telecommuting in the following ways:

  • Decreased commuting time means less stress; less stress means better health;
  • Decreased commuting time means employees spend less money on gas and maintenance for their vehicles;
  • Productivity and performance can improve for employees because there are fewer interruptions;
  • Employees have more time to spend with their families because they are not stuck in traffic;
  • Individuals in distant locations have access to jobs they would otherwise not have access to because today’s technology allows for real-time communication and rapid transfer of information;
  • Telecommuters have the added satisfaction of knowing that they are decreasing their carbon footprint and, therefore, helping the environment;
  • Employees considering retirement have the option of extending their careers;
  • Telecommuting is a good answer for those individuals who have issues (of any kind) with commuting to and from work;
  • Increased satisfaction and engagement with work.

Employers can also benefit from allowing employees to telecommute:

  • Lower costs associated with plant, equipment, and indirect overhead such as utilities;
  • Lower costs associated with high turnover;
  • Lower health-insurance costs: employees are generally happier and healthier when they are allowed to telecommute at least a few days a week;
  • Increased employee productivity and performance;
  • Enhanced recruiting efforts;
  • Reduced refreshment costs; i.e., coffee and snacks;
  • The ability to reach a larger pool of workers, which is especially beneficial when positions are difficult to hire for;
  • Positive employee advertising, so to speak. When employees are happy with their work, they tell others about it. Word-of-mouth advertising is the best, most cost-efficient advertising.

But if it’s so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? It’s possible that some employers have had negative experiences with telecommuting because they jumped into it too quickly; i.e., before they trained managers, set proper expectations for employees, or developed a well-thought-out program with room for trial and error.

There are other forces affecting an employer’s decision to provide a telecommuting program, such as employee demand, public opinion, competition, and technology. In other words, Millennials and other employees are demanding work-life balance and flexibility, while climate change has made green organizations—ones that allow telecommuting—attractive to both employees and customers alike. On the other hand, technology and reduced barriers to entry allow small companies to compete with, and pressure, their larger competitors, who may see telecommuting as antithetical to collaboration and disruption.

So what is the answer? Read two different articles or speak with two different professionals and you will likely get two different opinions. Really, the rules are–there are no rules. It’s whatever works for your organization. Can management allow employees to telecommute and successfully compete with other companies? Does your company have jobs that can be successfully performed away from the office? Does current technology allow for telecommuting, considering your company’s requirements and limitations? Even if the answer is “no” right now, it may be “yes” later, so it’s worth revisiting the possibilities. The benefits telecommuting can provide for both employees and employers are just too good to pass up!