Thursday, February 12, 2009

Telecommuting: Is it better to work from home?

Think about your work environment. Now take a look at the picture to the right and think about how much more work you could get done if that was your desk; at your home. Would your stress be reduced? Would you be able to focus more on the projects you're working on? Would the elimination of typical "office" distractions actually allow you to become a better employee to your company? Obviously, this is from an office-type job(like mine) perspective.

If you've answered yes to those questions, then it's very possible that telecommuting is perfect for you. However, is it also perfect for your employer? This debate has gone on for years in many corporations that seem to have a hard time letting go of their old-fashioned beliefs that are based around the "perception is reality" philosophy.

Companies and managers are worried that by letting their employees work from home, that they will have less control over them. They fear that it will lead to a lower standard of productivity in the company and therefore loss of profit margin. They might even fear that there is too much security risk involved in allowing an employee to work on sensitive information from outside the office walls.

Employees, on the other hand, seem to believe that if they didn't have all the distractions of their normal work environment, they'd be able to get their work done faster and with less stress. They feel that by telecommuting, they would actually increase their productivity and be happier with their jobs and careers all at the same time.

So... who's right and who's wrong?

Let's take a look at the pros and cons of telecommuting from both the employee's and the employer's point of view.

  • Improved Productivity -- Studies have shown that telecommuters are far more likely to spend an extra hour or two beyond the normal business day and even spare time on the weekends working on projects because the work is there and readily available. This is especially great news to employers of salaried employees. According to the 2001/2002 Telework America survey, AT&T saved over $65M per year due to increased productivity from telecommuting employees.
  • Employee Retention -- Having telecommuting options available help to retain valuable employees that might otherwise be forced to resign due to changes in their personal lives. It will also undoubtedly slow the job searching for a new position with an employer that does have available telecommuting options.
  • Facility Overhead Cost Reduction -- Companies that offer telecommuting to their employees are able to reduce the amount of office space needed and can sometimes even move to a smaller overall property footprint saving large amounts of monthly rental and utility bills as well as potential savings in parking fees for subsidized employee parking. According to the 2001/2002 Telework America survey, AT&T saved over $25M per year in office facilities costs alone, due to their telecommuting employees.
  • Overall Employer Attractiveness -- Employers that offer telecommuting will be considered over employers that do not when high-quality employee prospects are looking for a new place of employment. Geographical boundries, physical disabilities, and even chronic illness become much less of a factor as job-seekers search for new employment.
  • Improved Employee Attendance -- If an employee can work from home, there will be no need for them to use a "sick" day to care for an ill child or spouse. The increased flexibility will quickly translate in to higher attendance rates for telecommuting employees.

  • Improved Productivity -- Without excemption, all telecommuters say that the time saved from commuting twice a day coupled with the time saved from around-the-office distractions actually allows them to finish projects faster and with a higher standard of quality than they otherwise would have.
  • Daily Commute Cost Savings -- Many of the costs associated with a daily commute to work are hidden such as increased vehicle maintenance and food purchasing, however, it is easy to see the savings in fuel, parking, and public transportation costs. This can easily translate to thousands of dollars per year.
  • Clothing Cost Savings -- Being able to work from home means not having to purchase more expensive, office-appropriate clothing for a minimum of 5 days/week. This can easily translate to thousands of dollars per year.
  • Time Flexibility -- One of the most important and most valuable benefits to telecommuting employees is the flexibility to more efficiently juggle work and personal tasks throughout the day. Employees can complete their work on a schedule that is more in tuned with their own biological clocks rather than being forced to stay within a rigid 9 to 5 schedule.

  • Community Benefits -- Less commuting leads to less traffic congestion and therefore less automobile accidents. As an employer, if your valued employee is injured in a traffic accident, that could mean a significant disruption in normal daily work getting done for long periods of time. Over time, telecommuting could even lead to less overpopulation in urban areas.
  • Environmental Benefits -- Less commuting leads to less traffic which leads to less pollution to our environment. With the current trend of going "green", it's easy to see and enumerate the benefits of having less vehicle exhaust being pumped into the air twice a day for at least 5 days per week. Offering telecommuting options could be a strong part of a larger "green" initiative for your company.
Of course, there are going to be argument to the contrary of all of the above advantages. Companies will argue that they pay their employees well enough to afford commuting and wardrobe expenses. They will say that they provide sick hours as a benefit to their employees for situations with illness whether it be for the employee or a child. And employees will say that their employers will try to micromanage them in such a way that it becomes more frustrating and distracting to work from home than if they just drove in to the office every day. With those thoughts in mind, let's see some of the disadvantages of telecommuting.

  • Potential Security Risk -- This could be the most important disadvantage for many companies that are considering a telecommuting policy. However, with the technologies available such as Virtual Private Networking, Encrypted Email, One-Time Password Tokens, and Secure File Transfer, nearly all communications between the employee's home and work can be transmitted in a way that greatly reduces the chances of any breach of data.
  • Productivity Measurement -- It may be more difficult to measure employee productivity in certain situations and can thus create more room for questioning the quality of an employee's work.
  • Employee Management Issues -- It will be difficult for managers that manage their employees rather than managing employee projects to handle the changes that come with telecommuting, especially for those that chose to micromanage. Employers will need to place more trust in their telecommuting employees and will need to work to setup guidelines for periodic performance review.
  • Initial Investment in Equipment -- Employers will likely want to purchase laptop computers and Blackberry mobile phones for telecommuting employees to better control the use of those technologies. By providing equipment to the employee, the employer can develop strict useage guidelines of such technologies to reduce the misuse and mishandling of company informaiton.
  • Communication -- Because the employee will not be phisically available in the office, new standards of communication will need to be established. Desk numbers will need ot be forwarded to the employees cell phone. Instant Messaging clients will need to be available to replace being able to talk to co-workers "over the wall" and "down the hall". Weekly staff meetings (potentially on-site) will need to be inacted to keep all parties "in the loop" of current projects and initiatives.

  • Increased Security Requirements -- To offset the ability to work from virtually anywhere on the planet, additional security measures will need to be put in place to ensure that private information is kept private from prying eyes. This may or may not be a hassle that the employee would want to contend with.
  • Initial Investment in Equipment -- Telecommuting employees will need to setup a dedicated workspace at their home with dedicated telephone lines and strict usage rules around the space.
  • Communication -- Because the employee will not be phisically available in the office, new standards of communication will need to be established. Employees will need to make sure that they are as available as possible by phone, email, or IM in case of urgent communication needs. They may also need to agree to show up for weekly on-site staff meetings to stay informed of important business directives.
  • Promotional Consideration -- Often times, telecommuting may reduce an employee's chances of earning promotions due to the difficulties in performance monitoring and an out-of-site-out-of-mind situation. Also, telecommuting isn't reasonable for all job positions in a company and therefore any promotions may require a telecommuting employee to become a commuting employee.
  • Isolation -- One of the reasons that employee productivity will increase is that the employee is isolated from everyone at the office. This can easily turn in to social problems where you find yourself missing the interaction around the watercooler.
  • Overworking -- It will be much easier for a telecommuting employee to overwork themselves with work being readily available at home. If an employee is involved in a stressful project with a tight deadline, many times a normal 8-hour work day will creep in to 10 or 12 hours. Eventually that can become the norm and the employee will soon get tired and suffer burn-out.
  • Invisibility Factor -- Keeping with the out-of-site-out-of-mind" idea, a telecommuting employee will need to be more mindful that their work is documented so that managers and co-workers will be able to see that the work is getting done properly and on time. In order to measure performance, the work will need to be visible even when the employee is not.
Anyone can see that there are just as many, if not more, risks for both the employer and employee to consider when discussing telecommuting, but at the same time, the advantages far outweight those risks in many cases.

Here are some links to other articles about telecommuting that you might also be interested in: