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Is your organization ready for telecommuting?

Working at home has always appealed to a large number of people. With the advent of information-based jobs and "computer age" technology, the work-at-home option is now available to an increasingly large number of employees. As a result, the dream of thousands of today's knowledge workers to begin their workday by dialing-up a company computer from the comfort of a spare bedroom, den, or basement is fast becoming a realistic possibility. Just as computers have changed the way people work, they are now changing the place where people work.

Telecommuting's appeal is not limited to employees. Organizations are under pressure to improve their resource use--people, facilities, systems, and capital. Tomorrow's organizations must be able to respond quickly to changes in their markets, their competition, and their workforce. Here, too, information technology provides a realistic option for gaining this flexibility.

Telecommuting creates both problems and opportunities that organizations must recognize, evaluate, and address. Our purpose here is to identify the advantages and limitations of these programs and to suggest several key areas managers must address to determine if their organization is ready for telecommuting.

"Telecommuting," a term coined by Jack Nilles in the mid-1970s, describes the substitution of telecommunications and computers for the commute to a central office. Since that time, other writers have introduced similar terms (such as alternative work sites, distance workers, work-at-home programs, electronic cottages, and teleworking) to describe the same concept.[1] While most researchers use telecommuting to describe people working at home on a computer linked to the office by a telephone, the definition is rapidly expanding to include related concepts such as satellite offices, mobile phones, or almost any kind of work performed somewhere outside the typical office facility.

Besides the independent entrepreneur who works out of his or her home, the typical telecommuter falls into one of two broad categories.[2] The first includes professionals and highly skilled staff people who work at jobs requiring a great deal, of thought or independent action. This would include job categories like computer programmers, research specialists, or regional salespersons. These telecommuters work at home most of the time, but may come into the office periodically for weekly, monthly, or quarterly meetings. The second broad of category includes those workers performing data entry, word processing activities, telephone ordering or similar jobs which are readily measured or monitored, are somewhat independently performed, and require little training.

Many current telecommuting programs can be traced to situations where an employee was given an option to work at home because of an illness, relocation, pregnancy, or other special event. Those situations made office work difficult for that person, but the company did not want to lose the employee's knowledge or skills. Early success with these special cases combined with the decreasing costs of the technological tools has made this work option increasingly attractive and feasible for a wider variety of jobs. Many telecommuting programs now allow employees to split time between working at home and at the office, to work part-time rather than full-time, or to create individually tailored work weeks.[3]

"Homeworking" requires a new perspective by managers. Supervising an employee who can be easily observed seems quite different than supervising one who may be hundreds of miles away. As a result, managers considering this concept must carefully balance the benefits and limitations of work-at-home programs in terms of the individual worker and the organization. They must reassess their ingrained notions about how to manage out-of-sight workers and develop new management techniques to meet the challenges and opportunities of this non-traditional workforce.[4]

Advantages of Telecommuting

Working at home has some obvious advantages for the employee. First, he or she no longer must face rush-hour traffic to be at the office by a specified time. Besides the obvious savings in gasoline and vehicle wear, there is not loss of time in traveling to and from work. For many employees, eliminating the stresses of driving in rush hour traffic may represent the most important advantage. Further, the costs of appropriate office clothing and lunches are foregone by working at home. Telecommuting is particularly advantageous for new mothers or the physically handicapped who find travel burdensome or are unable to leave the home but need or want to stay in the workforce.

A related advantage is the flexible scheduling of work time. With the ability to work around family commitments, these workers can modify their working schedule daily or even hourly. Parents, therefore, may find a more comfortable balance between the randomly timed demands of children and task requirements.

Telecommuting also offers advantages for the employer. First, the employer can recruit people who otherwise might be unable or unwilling to travel to the company location. This would include those employees who would not otherwise work, such as mothers or the handicapped. Telecommuting programs also allow an organization to attract or retain highly valuable employees who might otherwise be unavailable due to disability, child care responsibilities, relocation, or personal preference. This particular advantage is enhanced by the organization's ability to offer such employees part-time options. This would allow, for example, a computer programmer recovering from an illness or a new mother to continue working on an unfinished project. Similarly, a retired employee, such as an insurance claims handler or a secretary, might enjoy the opportunity to work part-time when the company faces an unusual workload or period of unexpected absenteeism. Considering the high value of a trained, proven employee, this flexibility in employee utilization gained through telecommuting will become increasingly important as qualified employees become harder to find and keep.

A second benefit for the employer is the ability to control office space costs. A rapidly growing company, for example, can use a telecommuting program to avoid the costs of building or leasing additional offices or perhaps as a temporary solution while acquiring new space.[5] This advantage also applies to companies that own their own buildings who might find significant savings in converting some of their workforce into telecommuters and leasing the newly vacated space. This revenue-producing move may more than offset the costs of home terminals and training for the employees. A variation is to use telecommuting to accommodate part-time or seasonal personnel without having to acquire additional office space.

A third advantage is gaining the ability to better balance the demand on the organization's mainframe computer. With so much "real-time" computing done on today's corporate systems, the peak workload for the computer is typically between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Since companies must purchase enough computer capacity to serve peak demands, whatever workload can be shifted to off-peak times or whatever use of this capacity can be made outside or normal work hours represents a real economic gain. Thus, telecommuting programs can help reduce this capital investment.

A related advantage is the increased flexibility in scheduling those who service the computer, fix programming problems, and develop new applications. Tasks that do not absolutely have to be done during the traditional work day can be accomplished during off hours by telecommuters who may prefer (or are only available) to work nights, evenings or weekends. A telecommuting computer analyst, for example, can troubleshoot without ever leaving home.

One further advantage to the organization is the general expectation that telecommuting increases workforce productivity.[6] In particular, telecommuting can make it possible for "knowledge workers" to have long periods of uninterrupted time for concentration on their tasks. Given telecommuting technology, these employees could choose to work nights, weekends, or other times to complete an important task with complete access to the necessary data or information.

Disadvantages of Telecommuting

While the advantages of telecommuting establish a convincing case for its use in today's increasingly electronic work environment, there are disadvantages for both employee and employer that must be considered. One obvious disadvantage to the individual employee is the reduced opportunity to become involved with co-workers and the informal communication network at the office. The conversations during coffee breaks or at after hours gatherings often provide good opportunities to learn more about what is going on within the organization and to feel a part of work group. The lack of such interaction may lead to a feeling of alienation from one's co-workers as well as a lack of identity with the company goals and values.[7] While electronic mail or bulletin boards help with communication, they are poor substitutes for face-to-face meetings.

Telecommuting can also hinder career advancement for the individual not only with his or her present employer but with future employers as well. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind" comes into play when selecting personnel for promotions. The normal absences of the telecommuting employee could mean that co-workers remaining at the office have a better chance to be known and advance quicker. Management can rationalize this by questioning the telecommuter's skills in interpersonal communications and relationships. Since the telecommuter has limited, if any, face-to-face contact with fellow employees, finding evidence of the people skills considered necessary for managerial positions becomes difficult--whether or not the person has what it takes to be a "team player." Indeed, the employee's work as a telecommuter can serve as de facto evidence that he or she would rather not be around other people. This could also be a drawback should the telecommuter wish to search for a new position. In making recommendations, supervisors may feel that they do not really know much about their telecommuters beyond the productivity numbers or impersonal work records.

Telecommuting programs have disadvantages for organizations as well--mostly based on perceived or actual loss of control. One example, frequently noted by writers on this subject, is the potential for telecommuting employees to "goof-off" or put personal projects and errands above their work. Related to this control issue is the opportunity telecommuting creates for employees to use proprietary information or company equipment while working part-time for another company. Another possibility companies fear is that employees may farm out the work to somebody else, further reducing the organization's control over sensitive corporate information and work procedures.

Another concern is the security risk inherent in allowing outside computer terminal connections and external access to company databases. The potential problems this may create range from unauthorized people accidentally gaining privileged information to a deliberate interception of company data by competitors. Although office employees can also copy or acquire proprietary information, the temptation and opportunity for such security breaches is obviously greater for the telecommuter.

A related problem concern the maintenance and control of computer equipment placed in employee homes. While a few telecommuters provide their own equipment, most use equipment supplied by their companies at costs estimated from $2,000 to $10,000 per employee. The problems for companies are not only potential equipment damage or abuse but also the additional insurance problems when the equipment is off-site. Other problems include determining who is responsible for repairing and transporting such equipment and how the employee should be compensated when the equipment is down.

A major personnel disadvantage expressed by many managers is the impact of telecommuting on both informal and formal employee interaction. The importance of such interaction to the successful completion of projects is often cited as a major drawback in allowing employees, especially professionals, to work at home. Even if the telecommuter is involved in "one person" tasks or autonomous projects, the absence of frequent feedback from supervisors and associates can cause misdirection, unnecessary errors, or even duplication of work. As most employees would attest, the opportunity to casually talk with the person at the next desk or have a conversation with co-workers at lunch has frequently generated solutions to problems or the discovery that the problems have been solved. With telecommuting, this useful but unpredictable source of ideas and solutions is almost entirely eliminated.

The lack of identity with the company's culture and the absence of team spirit, mentioned earlier as a disadvantage for the employee, are also disadvantages for the company. Many companies take pride in the loyalty of their employees and their family-like work environment. These organizations see telecommuting as a threat to morale and a potential cause of turnover as employees lose their sense of belonging. Since there is some evidence of the importance of this corporate identity in making a company a good place to work, this particular disadvantage may be one of the most serious.

Another disadvantage of work-at-home programs is the opposition of some unions and government agencies to such arrangements. Both IRS and OSHA regulations remain applicable when an employee works at home. The OSHA laws concerning workplaces are in effect when a telecommuter is a true employee of a company. On the other hand, if telecommuters act as independent contractors to the firm without customary employee benefits they must file income taxes as a proprietor, pay the entire social security premium, and purchase their own health insurance and retirement plans. Not only does this become an added paperwork burden, but a serious financial one as well. Freelancers must not only make up the difference their employer used to pay in social security, health plans and other such benefits, they also lose seniority, promotions, sick leave, and vacation time. Operating as an at-home company may also lead to conflicts with residential zoning laws. These issues are only a few of the legal problems that will challenge organizations wishing to use telecommuting.

The Key Question to Answer

Four key questions must be answered affirmatively to determine if an organization is ready to use telecommuting. These questions, based on real corporate experiences with telecommuting programs, attempt to determine whether or not the organization has identified the right people, right jobs, the right supervisors, and the right organizational settings where the advantages for itself and its employees can be maximized. * Have the Right Employees Been Selected to Participate?

Both the observers who write about telecommuting and the representatives of organizations who use it indicate that people who are successful telecommuters have an ability to set and meet work goals and are not uncomfortable working by themselves. Learning how to work without supervision, to manage time, and to plan out a work day are necessary skills for a home worker.

Since selecting the right people for telecommuting jobs requires knowing more about the employee's work habits than is typically the case for newly hired employees, telecommuters should probably be chosen from existing employees who have proven themselves to be organized selfstarters in the traditional office setting. Even here, however, psychological interviews would be advisable to distinguish employees who have a high need for social interaction from those who can work alone. Telecommuting would be inappropriate for employees with a high need for social interaction or constant supervisory feedback. The loss of satisfaction from working in a non-traditional environment would be a significant detriment to performance, esteem, and morale. * Have the Right Jobs Been Selected for the Program?

If the right people have been identified to participate in a telecommuting program, the next task is finding the right jobs for the program. Two major categories of jobs lend themselves well to telecommuting. The first includes those that are easily measured, routine in nature, involve interaction with a computer terminal, and where the employee's physical location is immaterial to the effectiveness of job performance. Data entry clerks, telephone sales representatives, and reservation clerks are good illustrations of this job category. Since many organizations base their decision regarding telecommuting on a careful cost/benefit analysis, routine, high-quality tasks are excellent candidates for a telecommuting program.

The second job category well suited to telecommuting is the largely autonomous, professional project requiring concentrated thought by a single person. Sometimes a computer and corporate data base are not needed. The tendency of some corporate professionals to stay home to get the quiet time necessary to finish a big project (or to hide out in an isolated part of the plant or corporate library) are some relatively common examples of this long-practiced from of telecommuting. The more current use of the term usually brings forth the image of a busy exective with a lap top computer in a motel room, airplane, or at home phoning in the results of the day's work through a modem. This category could include a programmer, design engineer or corporate editor hooked directly into the mainframe through a dedicated phone line from his or her home office. The key similarity in all of these forms of telecommuting is that the tasks are usually the result of one person's thought process and when finished, can be judged good or bad by that person's boss. * Are the Supervisors Ready, Willing, and Able?

The third key question refers to how comfortable the supervisor of a telecommuter is with the concept in general and the participating employees in particular. Many managers are uncomfortable being held accountable or the performance of employees they seldom see doing their jobs. Telecommuters require supervisors who sincerely believe that they are committed to both task and organization.

Since a key element in a telecommuting program's success is supervision, managers must be trained to deal with the unique problems telecommuters create. Beyond the obvious need to learn new computer-related skills, supervisors must learn to clearly define job expectations, specific task goals, and acceptable quality standards. Since managers of telecommuters cannot observe their employees at work, they must learn human relations skills that will allow them to effectively adapt their leadership style and interpersonal communications to a diverse and geographically separated workforce. * Is The Company Ready for Telecommuting?

If an organization is serious about instituting a comprehensive telecommuting program, this last question is probably the most important. Since, as noted, many programs begin as a response to a unique employee employee situation, this critical question frequently gets overlooked. These programs, however, have significant far-reaching implications for the organization and its legal and human resource responsibilities. If the organization chooses to deal with its telecommuters as independent contractors, for example, how should their salary be adjusted to make them equal on health, vacation, social security, and other benefits office employees receive? If telecommuters remain employees rather than independent contractors, what liability does the company have for a worker who gets hurt working at home or when the company equipment malfunctions or for any of a broad range of legal issues that pertain to the employer-employee relationship?

In addition to the legal concerns, there are a variety of other important human resource management issues. Organizations pride themselves on their culture, their esprit de corps, and the interaction among their people that creates and reinforces the corporate value system and mission. Maintaining spirit in a telecommuting workforce is a major challenge.

Other human resource problems organizations need to address before they commit to telecommuting programs include the following: making sure their telecommuting employees don't get overlooked at promotion or pay-raise time; and instituting the necessary support structures so the telecommuter can receive training in new procedures and practices; keep the employee abreast of new corporate directions; allowing the employee to maintain social contacts with their peers; and providing access to corporate staff expertise when needed. In other words, companies considering telecommuting must carefully think through what ramifications this program will have on their organization and their employees by thoughtfully answering the four questions.

Summary and Conclusion

As information-based jobs grow and telecommunications equipment becomes an accepted part of the world of work, the likelihood of a larger telecommuting workforce increases. While these programs bring important financial and personal benefits to individuals and organizations, they also have costs such as new training, equipment, and policies. They key to achieving telecommuting's benefits only begins with an understanding of the technology. Beyond this is the need to fully assess the organization and its ability to deal with the many other issues telecommuting raises.

These four self-analysis questions are designed to focus on the key components of telecommuting success. Have the right employees been selected to participate? Have the right jobs been selected for the program? Are your supervisors ready, willing, and able? Is your company ready for the changes these programs bring? If the answers are all positive, you can capitalize on telecommuting's benefits. Are you ready?


[1]See for example: Christensen, Kathleen, "A Hard Day's

Work in The Electronic Cottage," Across the Board,

April, 1987; Kuzela, Lad, "Sanoy's Working at Home

Today," Industry Week, June 1, 1987; Sheila Rothwell,

"Managing Distance Workers," Personnel Management,

September, 1987; and "Telecommuting: Staying Away

in Droves," The Economist, Vol. 303, April, 1987. [2]Atkinson, William, "Telecommuter Blues: Why

Homework Isn't for Everyone," Management World,

November, 1985, p. 25. [3]The productivity improvement claims range from 26

percent at Blue Cross to 49 percent in a U.S. Army

Logistics Management Systems Activity. Both

examples report in Office Workstations in the Home

(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office,

1985). [4]See for example: Honan, Patrick, "Telecommuting: Will

it Work for You?", Computer Decisions, June 15, 1984

and "Telecommuting: Not for Middle Managers,"

Management World, August, 1984. [5]"Trusting Telecommuters," Management World,

October, 1986. [6]Robert Levering, A Great Place to Work, New York:

Random House, 1988. [7]Micossi, Anita, "Zoning Laws, Unions Hinder

Telework," Computer Decisions, February 26, 1985;

Sheila Rothwell, "Managing Distance Workers,"

Personnel Management, September, 1987; and "The

Home Office and the New workers," Personnel

Management, September, 1984. Robert C. Ford, Professor, University of Alabama at Birmingham, has published extensively in human resources management and organizational structure, and has co-authored a text Organizational Theory; Mr. Michael A. Butts, is Assistant to the Vice President of Operations at Drummond Company.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Society for the Advancement of Management
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Author:Ford, Robert C.; Butts, Michael A.
Publication:SAM Advanced Management Journal
Date:Sep 22, 1991
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