If only we could rise on a weekday morning without having to put on work clothes, start a cranky car, fight smoggy traffic, pay for expensive parking, then do it all over again at the end of the day.
Think how that could minimize our footprint on the environment, save on clothes, gas, and parking, and save our companies the cost of expensive office space.
That seems to be the common wisdom when people talk about telecommuting or telework synonyms for the use of internet and communications technologies to work outside the traditional office or workplace, usually at home. MSNBC.com calls it “the quiet revolution” and predicts that by 2009, 27.5 per cent of U.S. workers won’t be driving to the office.
Governments are starting to take telework seriously. The environmental quality branch of B.C.’s Ministry of Environment makes this recommendation: “Consider a condensed work week or telecommuting as a way to work effectively and cut air pollution.” For many disabled employees, it can also present a way to be an active member the workforce without having to undertake the challenges of commuting or office access and facilities.
According to the latest World at Work survey, there’s been a substantial increase year over year in the number of workplaces offering telework. In the U.S., telework is offered at 42 per cent of the nearly 2,300 employers surveyed, up from 30 per cent in 2007. The Canadian portion of the survey, which contacted 227 employers, shows an even more dramatic jump, from 25 per cent to 40 per cent. Telework is listed among more than 20 programs to attract and retain employees, ranging from the most popular, a signing bonus, all the way down to paid sabbaticals (see www.worldatwork.org).
“It’s been a perfect storm,” says Anne C. Ruddy, president of World at Work, when the Washington, D.C. organization released the results in a news release late in August. “Rising gas prices, leading-edge technology, and the push for work-life flexibility have all come together in the past 12 months to create a pretty dramatic increase in telework across the U.S. and Canada.”
In this country, Telus has found that teleworking can increase employee productivity by about 20 per cent, after a 2006 pilot project where 170 employees worked at home. Besides increased productivity and morale, it also saved 114 tonnes of greenhouse gases and almost 14,000 hours of time in traffic.
Although more organizations in Canada and the U.S. are beginning to implement telework options or develop telework policies, and many employees and unions are embracing the opportunity, some remain reluctant.
In an article in Ontario’s Business Edge magazine (www.businessedge.ca), writer Sharon Adams says “old-line thinking — better suited to the industrial revolution — is holding us back from the full benefits of telecommuting.” She quotes Bob Fortier, president of the Canadian Telework Association (himself a virtual worker), who found “there are a lot of managers who say, ‘Not on my watch.’”
Technology such as web-based applications, video conferencing, webcams, instant messaging, and voice-over-Internet telephone can enable virtual workers to function from home base much more efficiently and accountably. Organizations also have to consider other issues, though. ITBusiness.ca magazine offers employers six questions to ask before trying out telework:
1) Is fulltime telecommuting a smart decision?
2) How will you define and measure performance?
3) Will creativity suffer?
4) How will telework affect collaboration?
5) What about employees “left behind” in the office?
6) Do you have an exit strategy, that is, if you decide to discontinue the telework option?
Here are some of the tangible benefits and potential pitfalls of telework programs — from the perspectives of employers and employees — along with recent research that has been done on this hot topic.
› Telework is a great recruiting and engagement incentive.
Telework is on the rise as an incentive to attract and retain talent. Both young workers entering the workforce as well as workers closer to retirement have an interest in the flexibility of at-home work options. For younger workers, there is no clear line between work life and personal life, so it feels natural and comfortable for them to them to work from home.
It can also offer employees a better balance between work and life, improving employee morale and reducing stress, resulting in a more satisfied, stable, and productive workforce. EKOS Research found that 33 per cent of Canadians would choose telework over a salary raise, while 43 per cent would actually quit their job to work somewhere that allows telework.
On the other hand, older or more established workers, who haven’t experienced telecommuting and are used to working in the office, may be reluctant, especially at mid-career. A recent U.S. survey of 700 white-collar workers reports that almost two out of three persons fear working from home “will hinder their chances at a promotion due to the lack of contact with the employer.” Seven out of 10 believe their manager wants them around to prevent a decline in productivity, while 62 per cent think their employer needs them in the office to prevent communication problems.
› Telework can net huge savings on the cost of office space.
Not only can home-based employees help organizations reduce the costs of office overhead, including lease costs, taxes, energy costs, and equipment and supply costs, but they can also help solve the ever-present urban issue of available office space (especially in places such as downtown Victoria). Through telework, AT&T reports saving $500 million in office costs since 1995, and IBM reduced office space requirements and saved $56 million per year.
› Telework can help improve the efficiency, performance, and productivity of your employees.
As many organizations become more reliant on information technology for their operations and communications, telework can actually help companies get a better return on investment from their workplace technology. American Express reports that their teleworkers handled 26 per cent more calls and produced 43 per cent more business than their office-based counterparts. IBM Canada, where 20 per cent of the workforce teleworks, claims those employees were as much as 50 per cent more productive.
Trust — on the part of employers — remains the looming shadow behind the sunshine of telework. Production-focussed workers whose output can be quantified electronically are less concerned than workers whose productivity is often measured by their managers in terms of what they’re seen to be doing in the office. A series of Dilbert comic strips chronicles the character’s brief telecommuting experience as he descends into comical non-productivity. It’s exactly what most employers fear, but employers who take the risk often find that the main change is the need to manage more diligently.
“You’re trusting people to do the work,” says Steve Lundin of Big Frontier Communications Group, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. “There is some fluff time you’re paying for, but what you bill out for is far more than what you’re paying them.” One downside to telecommuting is the “additional management of people,” says Lundin, who has to spend more of his time on the phone.
Teleworkers may also be affected by physical isolation and the lack of stimulating personal interaction they normally have in an office setting.
Employers can remedy this by ensuring teleworkers have opportunities to meet face-to-face regularly, and this may even reduce the number of unnecessary or unproductive meetings that are called just because workers are on-site.
› The green commute: telework can show commitment to the environment.
Your organization can improve its “green” image and show its commitment to the community by reducing vehicle emissions and saving fuel and energy costs as you cut gas consumption. It can be demonstrated in hard numbers in an annual report, too. A U.S. article from the Hartford Courant reports that an employee with a 45-minute commute could cut his or her monthly gas expenses by 40 per cent, or about $80, if allowed to telecommute two days a week.
› Effect on foreign operations and across time zones.
Organizations operating across several time zones or expanding to global markets can hire and deploy teleworkers in other countries with ease. Moreover, telework can be an alternative to the expensive relocation of staff to other regions or countries. Statistics Canada reports that it costs companies an average of $42,000 to move workers to another city. Telework lets some workers stay put while conducting work for a branch in another location.
› Telework can reduce overtime for office staff and may reduce absenteeism.
When it comes to minor illnesses or health issues that might normally keep workers away from their jobs, telework offers some employees the option to work from the comfort of their own home when they have minor health problems without the physical stress of having to be in the office. Less travel time also may mean less overtime costs. The average employee is absent about eight days a year, according to Statistics Canada.
› Who is best suited for telework?
ITBusiness.ca pointed out that telework is best for task-oriented jobs (such as information technology positions) that don’t require a lot of face-to-face interaction. It can help improve productivity for these types of employees; they can work in a private environment without any distractions. Call centres are increasingly using telework as a way to save costs, with calls routed to employees’ homes, where they can use online databases and tools to help resolve customer issues.
It can help organizations increase the number of customer service hours because teleworkers can work longer, later, or staggered hours at home and not worry about transportation or personal safety issues. However, this can lead to problems with the “digital divide” separating those left behind in the office and those who telework.