Printer Friendly

Telecommuting Offers New Area for Greater Teleconferencing Growth.

The best thing about prognosticating about the future is that few people ever check to see if you were right or wrong. (There are some exceptions to this rule, though; you'll find a great listing of them in 303 of the World's Worst Predictions by Wayne Coffey, published by Tribeca Communications. Among the contenders for the cloudy crystal ball award is this classic from Thomas Watson of IBM, in 1958: "I think there is a world market for about five computers.")

Let's see if we can't do a little better as we look ahead at the link between two rapidly developing "teles"--teleconferencing and telecommuting. I'll tell you now that my experience with teleconferencing is limited to a memory of my visit to the AT&T Picturephone exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair and an occasional (and more recent) audioconference call or two. Telecommuniting is another story--I've been following this field for almost three years now and have built a consulting practice on helping firms understand and implement it for their employees. [In addition to heading his own consulting firm in Monmouth, New Jersey, Gordon is editor of a new newsletter, Telecommuting Review, published by TeleSapn in Altadena, California.]

What is telecommuting? It's remarkably similar to teleconferencing in many ways. The basic concept is to find ways to bring the work to the workers wherever they are, instead of vice versa. Employees who telecommute are often (but not always) working in their homes while linked (often but not always) via terminal or computer to the central office. They spend anywhere from two to almost five days a week at the remote location and the biggest challenges are the supervisory ones.

Technically, telecommuting is not much of a problem, except in rare cases. The key implementation issues have to do with selecting the right people to work remotely, training them and their managers to find ways to do and supervise the work remotely, and, most importantly, finding ways to keep these telecommuters linked to the office. "linked" doesn't refer only to the technical ties; in fact, the concern here is mostly to find ways to make the telecommuter continue to feel a part of the office in terms of information flow, contact with co-workers and even staying in touch with the office grapevine.

Firms that have set up programs--and the numbers are small so far--have found payoffs in improved recruiting and retention of key staff, reduced office space costs and improved productivity. Jobs suited for telecommuting range from clerical (word processing, data entry and telemarketing or telephone reservations) to professional (market research, technical writers, programmers, economists and many more).

In many ways telecommuting is a concept whose time has come but whose widespread implementation has been held back by (mis)perceptions about what it is and isn't. (Does all this sound familiar?) One of the biggest obstacles is the manager's belief that remote workers can't be effectively supervised; "how will I know when they're working?" they ask. Also, there are concerns about isolation on the part of potential telecommuters themselves; will they be lonely, out of the mainstream and hindered by infrequent direct access to co-workers, for instance.

Before peering into the crystal ball, it's important to note that telecommuting will grow to mean much more than working at home. It can include work a satellite or branch offices, office parks associated with teleports, or even at so-called "neighborhood work centers." These are among the most interesting remote work sites. The idea is to take an abandoned elementary school or aging shopping center, perhaps, and convert is into a multi-employer office building complete with cafeteria and even exercise and day-care facilities. It offers a nice compromise between home-based telecommuting and the traditional downtown office.

One scenario for the future is a very fluid kind of work schedule for many workers. If we can rely on technology to ring the work anywhere (in the form of terminals accessing mainframe files, for example) we might see an ever-changing pattern of work locations. One week you might spend two days at home, one day at the neighborhood work center and one day in the downtown office. Next week it might be a day at one of the branch offices, three days downtown and one at home. The actual pattern would vary according to the employee's and manager's preference, nature of work that week and the need for face-to-face interaction or access to items not readily moved to a remote site (such as production equipment, research facilities). Case 1: the Weekend Warriors

Tom, Mary and George learn late Friday afternoon that they have to pull together a major proposal for a key customer by noon on Monday. Mary is heading for a long-planned trip to the beach with her husband, and Tom and George just have the usual weekend errands to handle. Tom agrees to draft an outline of the proposal by 9 pm Friday on his PC at home and dump it into the company's electronic mail system for comment. George and Mary read it later that night (Mary has packed her portable PC with built-in modem next to the suntan lotion), and Tom reads their comments after taking his dog for his 6 am walk Saturday. He edits the outline and sends it via electronic mail to the other two by 8 am.

They have a quick conference call at 9 am to discuss the changes and divide up the work to draft the proposal. By 10 am on Sunday all three have loaded their sections into a common file the others can access. Another round of electronic mail messages among the three goes out as each person reads the other sections.

As they agreed, they each begin work on their assigned sections. Tom incorporates the changes and finishes the proposal by dinnertime on Sunday. He transmits the completed file to the office, where his secretary can do some final editing and then print it out at her workstation Monday morning. Case 2: the Leaky Bottle

Acme Shampoo Company has a problem. It seems that their 16-ounce shampoo bottles have begun to spring leaks on store shelves across a three-state area. Top management is understandably concerned and quickly pulls together a task force to find the solution.

The task force members include Ralph from engineering, Helen from operations and three others from marketing, distribution and Public Relations. Ralph is a telecommuter who works at home three days every week, and the marketing and PR reps are at headquarters, which is located 150 miles from the plant where Helen and the distribution rep work.

A 30-minute conference call that afternon leads to a decision to break the job into five tasks. Using a computer-conferencing system on the firm's computer they quickly set up lists of they factors for each task. Everyone joins in the conference and adds to or comments on the lists. This happens over the next day, each person reading the conference files and entering ideas from either a nearby terminal or PC.

The possible cause is quickly narrowed down to a new set of molds used for the bottles. The distribution rep checked the patterns of complaints against shipping records and constructed a graph showing how the complaints relate to batch numbers; each task force member has viewed this on his or her screen. When Ralph sees the graph he remembers some problems he had with the vendor of the new mold. He calls a co-worker in the office and asks him to send a facsimile copy of the blueprints to the neighborhood work center two miles away, where he picks them up later that afternoon.

His hunch is right, he learns, since the drawings show a slight design flaw that didn't show up before. He wants to see the mold to be sure, but it's almost 4:30 and there's no way he wants to buck rush-hour traffic to drive the 45 minutes to his office. As long as he's at the neighborhood center he calls Helen and asks her to have the suspect mold brought to the videoconference room right away. In a few minutes he's looking at a close-up view of the mold on a screen and discussing his thoughts with the full task force via audio conference. They agree to have the mold quickly modified slightly, and chart plans for the recall of the leakers.

These are certainly not far-fetched examples and they are workable with today's technology. Teleconferencing and telecommuting share the features of being time-independent and location-independent. By integrating the range of teleconferencing methods with telecommuting, it's possible to have remote workers stay in touch, attend staff meetings and continue to be linked to the office in more ways than one. Full-motion videoconferencing may not appear in everyone's living room for a while yet, but the use of satellite or neighborhood centers (or public video networks like those being put in place by various hotel chains) may bring video within reach. We've only begun to scratch the surface in telecommuting, but it's clear that its growth can be accelerated by selective use of teleconferencing, and vice-versa.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gordon, G.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1985
Previous Article:Audioconferencing Aids Efforts in Telemarketing.
Next Article:Freeze-Frame Videoconferencing Aids the Statue of Liberty Restoration.

Related Articles
Teleconferencing Catches On.
Key Trends Point to Faster Growth for Business Telecon Applications.
How to manage systems for remote workers.
Telecommuting: the new workplace trend.
Merging home and office: telecommuting is a high-tech energy saver.
Tips for telecommuting success: telecommuting can cut costs, boost employee morale, and improve productivity--but only if you have the right tools...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters