The idea for telecommuting started in the early 1970s. A scientist stuck in Los Angeles traffic reasoned that a good deal of time and stress could be saved by moving the work to the employee instead of always moving the employee to the work. Since that time, communication technologies (e.g., fax, mobile phones, e-mail, the Internet, and instant messaging) and information technologies (e.g., the personal computer) have become more common. Subsequently, work has begun to move out of the traditional work space. Employees have become freed of time and place constraints to work whenever and wherever they choose.
Telecommuting and teleworking are often used interchangeably when referring to working outside of an organization. However, telework is usually considered the more general term and refers to any use of communication or information technologies to substitute for work-related travel. Virtual teams of coworkers who are scattered around the world can be considered teleworkers even if all of them work within an office.
Telecommuters are a subset of teleworkers. These are employees who work outside of a main office. There are four main types of telecommuters. The first, and most well known, are telecommuters who work from their homes. These telecommuters may have a dedicated home office space or may simply set up their laptop on the kitchen table. Although some home-based telecommuters work from their home every day, most do not. Some telecommute from home only one or two days a week, and some only once a month.
The second type of telecommuter is found in satellite offices that are located outside the home and outside the main office. Satellite offices provide an organizational location convenient to customers or to the employees, but it is still considered a type of telecommuting because even though employees may be close to other employees of their organization, they may be separated from their primary coworkers and teams.
A third type of telecommuter works in a neighborhood office. This telecommuting arrangement is similar to the satellite office except that the office is not dedicated to one organization. Instead it is occupied by employees from several different organizations. Thus, telecommuters interact with other employees, but not necessarily ones from their own organization.
Mobile workers are the final type of telecommuter. These employees work on the road in their car, hotels, and airplanes. These employees have no dedicated work location and no colleagues with whom they regularly interact while working.
Home-based telecommuting is the most common form of telework. In 2004, 24.1 million employees engaged in home-based telecommuting at least one day per month. An additional 20.3 million self-employed workers can also be classified as telecommuters. That means that nearly 20% of the workforce works at home at least part-time. It is expected that the number of home-based telecommuters will grow as technology improves and it becomes more acceptable for employees to work outside of an office.
How do employees become telecommuters? Telecommuting programs are either informal or formal. Informal telecommuting occurs when employees irregularly work away from the office. Employees and their managers may decide that the employees should work at home occasionally to focus on a particular project or to save commuting time for specific personal obligations (e.g., a doctor’s appointment).
Formal telecommuting programs involve an arrangement between the employees and their human resources department. A formal program may mean changing the employees’ classification to signal to other employees their telecommuting status, providing training on setting up a home office, and creating monetary allowances for purchasing home office supplies.
Historically, telecommuting was offered primarily to high-performing, trustworthy employees. Managers were more likely to grant their best employees the benefit of working without immediate supervision. Many organizations made it clear that telecommuting was not for employees who just wanted the convenience of working at home. The arrangement had to be mutually beneficial to the organization and the employee.
However, as telecommuting becomes more common, employees of all types are starting to work outside the office. Additionally, a new generation of employees with significant experience and comfort with technology is coming on the market. Organizations may offer telecommuting to these employees as a competitive hiring perk. Managers may soon be faced with a growing number of employees with whom they do not have regular face-to-face contact.
Advantages and Challenges to Telecommuting
As telecommuting becomes more common, we are learning about the advantages and challenges it brings to working. Telecommuting can offer many benefits to the individual employee, the organization, and society. For the individual, telecommuting can be less stressful. Telecommuters have more autonomy and flexibility in how they structure and conduct their work. Telecommuters can work in a comfortable work environment (e.g., their home) with fewer distractions. They are often less involved in the normal office politics, a source of stress for many traditional employees.
One of the most common perceived benefits for telecommuters is the ability to balance their work and family obligations. By reducing their commuting time, they are able to spend more time with their family. Eliminating a 40-minute one-way commute allows telecommuters an additional 6.5 hours a week to spend with their families or working at home.
Additionally, telecommuters’ flexibility allows them to schedule their work around family obligations—for example, starting work early in the morning so they can stop work early to attend a daughter’s soccer match. Overall, telecommuters are more satisfied than traditional employees.
Organizations also benefit from telecommuting. Organizations report a higher quality and a greater quantity of work from their telecommuters. Telecommuters report that they work better because of the fewer interruptions they experience by working at home compared with at the office. Additionally, telecommuters benefit their organization with lower turnover and lower absenteeism. Telecommuters are less likely to call in sick to stay at home when they are already working at home.
Telecommuting also reduces the overhead that organizations have to spend on housing their employees. Estimates are that organizations save $5,000 per year on every employee who telecommutes full-time. Some organizations have even implemented wide-scale telecommuting programs as part of an effort to reduce their costs.
Society benefits by the reduction in commuting time and the number of commuters on the road. Less pollution and traffic congestion benefit everyone and are the main reasons why many traffic-dense urban communities support telecommuting initiatives. Some communities also believe that when employees work at home, it makes neighborhoods safer and residents more active in community life.
Telecommuting is not, however, without its challenges. Telecommuting can isolate employees both socially and professionally. Socially, telecommuters lose their informal interactions with their coworkers, often known as watercoolertalk. Although these informal interactions can be considered interruptions to work, they serve as important conduits of social, political, and organizational knowledge. Without these interruptions, telecommuters may work more productively, but they know less about the norms and culture of their coworkers and the organization. They are out of the loop with the rest of the organization and may become less committed and attached to the organization.
Professionally, telecommuters have less access to mentoring and other developmental relationships at work. Telecommuters might actually work with managers and coworkers whom they have never met face-to-face. Career development may be impeded because telecommuters are “out of sight and out of mind” when managers consider promotions and additional job responsibilities.
Managers’ control over the employee and their efforts at performance management and monitoring are more challenging. Managers who are used to seeing their employees working hard at their desks may feel uncomfortable at the thought of supervising an absent employee. Managers of telecommuters have to move to a results-oriented style of management; they have to learn to focus more on outcomes and project completion than on effort.
Teleworkers also have to change their work style. They must become more proactive and take charge of their job responsibilities. They have to become more structured in managing their days and their work to be effective.
Telecommuting may be particularly challenging for teams. The lone telecommuting member of a team may be less influential. Work coordination is particularly a problem if employees do not have adequate technology at their home. Broadband Internet is an essential technology for employees who need to share data and files and use the standard business communication technologies. The use of broadband Internet at home is increasing from 4.4 million telecommuters in 2003 to 8.1 million in 2004. However, this number still represents only around one-fourth of home-based telecommuters. Therefore, team members of telecommuters without broadband still face challenges sharing their work.
Ironically, work-family balance is also a challenge for the home-based telecommuter. Whereas telecommuting’s flexibility and autonomy can help telecommuters meet their family needs, this same flexibility can make balancing work and family obligations difficult. If family members are home during regular work hours, telecommuters may struggle to ensure that young children, spouses, and even neighbors understand that they are really working. Telecommuters may also feel pressure to complete household chores during paid work time when they see a kitchen full of dirty dishes or laundry in the hamper. If telecommuters do combine their work, domestic, and child-care responsibilities during work hours, they may have to extend the amount of time they work to accommodate all of these roles.
Additionally, employees who work at home never get to leave work. Because all their work information and communication technologies are at home, telecommuters may feel more pressure to answer the work phone or check their work e-mail outside their paid work hours. Pressure may also come from knowing that with their reduced visibility, they need to compensate by being available to their colleagues at any time.
Telecommuters who work with global teams may be expected to be available at odd hours of the day and night. Although this is true for all global team members, telecommuting team members are particularly susceptible because they have access to their work communication technologies 24 hours a day. For example, a telecommuter on the East Coast of the United States may need to be available for early morning meetings with coworkers in western Europe and late evening meetings with coworkers in Australia. Thus, telecommuters may work longer hours than the traditional office-bound employee.
Interestingly, some research doesn’t support the idea that telecommuters work more hours than traditional employees. It may be that telecommuters perceive that they are working more hours because signs of work are constantly visible. They may also report working more hours to justify the flexibility they have for working at home.
As telecommuting becomes a more popular work option, employees and organizations will have to pay attention to important emerging issues. One important concern is ensuring that the home environment is conducive for work. Some organizations require that telecommuters arrange day care for their young children. Other organizations encourage telecommuters to have a dedicated work space (e.g., a separate room with a door) to provide physical as well as psychological boundaries from the rest of the house. For example, a shared space near the family’s living area is not as conducive to work as a dedicated office space in an isolated part of the house. These physical and psychological boundaries are important to maintaining work-family balance and to keep work from overtaking the home and vice versa.
Technological support will also be important. Although broadband use is increasing, it is still at a level much lower than the number of telecommuters. Additionally, as work technology at home becomes complicated, organizations will need to determine how to support home workers when these technologies are upgraded or inevitably break down. Organizations will need to focus on distributed training as well as providing help desks that can assist with the unique configurations of telecommuters.
The lack of informal communication with coworkers continues to be a problem. Currently, no communication technology can replace water cooler talk. Organizations and managers may need to pay particular attention to including social small talk with their work communications to keep telecommuters informed about and connected to the organization.
Finally, new employees who start as telecommuters will be a challenge. Employees who never work face-to-face with others may not adequately be socialized into the organization’s culture. They may operate as free agents with little commitment to the organization and a higher likelihood of turnover. As telecommuting and teleworking rates increase in our workforce, organizations may need to focus on ensuring that these employees participate as full-fledged members of the organization.
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