Is Telecommuting An Effective Way To Work?

Working the schedule you want—in your pajamas? Surely, this can’t be becoming any sort of normal business practice. While telecommuting—also known as teleworking or the flexible workplace—has not affected the majority of workers just yet, it does prove to be a potentially effective alternative for businesses who are looking for innovative and sustainable ways to operate in the ever-changing job market.

Currently, one in five workers worldwide telecommute, particularly employees in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, and one in 10 work from home every day. In the U.S., regular telecommuting grew by 61 percent between 2005 and 2009, and during that same period, home-based self-employment grew by 1.7 percent.

Some of the biggest teleworking employers include Xerox, UnitedHealth Group, Dell, Aetna, American Express, Humana, ADP, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Qualcomm, Ultimate Software, NetApp and Google. According to the Families and Work Institute, 63 percent of employers now allow workers to telecommute as of May 2013, which is nearly double the figure from eight years ago.

As can be surmised, a healthy amount of telecommuting-friendly companies are tech-based companies, as the dawn of the Internet and mobile devices enable telecommuters to perform many of their duties at home or on the go. According to Forbes, Austin, Portland, Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and other tech-oriented cities rank among those with the highest percentage of telecommuters.

But telecommuting is extending to more companies and industries than just the tech sector. Self-employed freelancers, such as writers, graphic designers, website builders, and computer programmers, are becoming more common as well.

As the concept of telecommuting becomes more realized, it is predicted to take off across the world, as it already has in many countries. Does telecommuting signal the wave of the future for the face of the workplace? Or will it remain in the minority of jobs available in the workforce?

The Benefits Of Teleworking

Teleworking provides many different benefits to employees and businesses alike. For many of these working relationships, benefits appear to come from both sides of the equation—though of course, not every arrangement is perfect.

One primary benefit is the potential for balancing the work-life situation of an individual employee. Being able to be at home more of the time means more time spent with family, which can coincide with an increased presence in those family members’ lives and increased overall happiness for the telecommuter.

This is in part due to the ability to set a flexible schedule. For many people, it is not always practical to work in 8-hour blocks of time with a couple of breaks sprinkled here and there. In addition, not all workers are at their best from 9 to 5.

The flexible schedule allowed by telecommuting allows workers to be productive at their best times of day and in the blocks of time that are best for their family and other obligations. Workers can also take breaks when they need them, which is generally much healthier and more encouraging of productivity than having to sit at a desk for hours on end.

Another benefit is the elimination of the daily commute. This not only protects the environment, as it reduces the worker’s time spent driving to and from work each day, but it also allows  more time in the day for the worker to be productive in other ways—such as to work on tasks. Eliminating the daily commute also reduces the stress workers may have to contend with while dealing with traffic, late public transportation, or finding a parking place.

In terms of the environment, one study shows that telecommuting could reduce greenhouse gas by the equivalent of nine million cars per year in the U.S. and could reduce oil consumption by 280 million barrels of oil per year. These figures are based on if the 40 percent of telecommuters in the U.S. who hold telework-compatible jobs could do so half the time.

According to some studies, telecommuting may even increase productivity and creativity among telecommuters who are able to work unfettered by constant supervision and a possibly stifling workplace. From the comfort of their home and the convenience of a more sustainable schedule, telecommuting employees often find themselves at an advantage for being productive and creative in terms of their work due to a more flexible environment that enables the spontaneity of creativity rather than force or stifle it.

Teleworking also saves both the employee and employer money in the long run. Telecommuters on average save from $2,000 to $7,000 per year on transportation costs, such as gas, public transportation and parking, clothing, food and more. Employers can save $11,000 on average for each employee that telecommutes at least half of the time. They save money on everything from office space and office supplies to providing fewer benefits for those they hire on a contract basis rather than full-time.

One study shows that the U.S. could save over $650 billion per year if the 40 percent of workers who hold telecommuting-compatible jobs and want to work from home half the time are allowed to do so.

The opportunities presented by teleworking also extend to many different types of people—some of whom might not have previously been able to hold down a job in a traditional office environment. For example, people who are disabled, have chronic diseases, or have mental disorders which might prevent them from working in a traditional setting now have the option of having a job that they can work around their illnesses. Retirees can benefit from telecommuting by choosing to work part time, on their own time, allowing them the freedom of retirement while still making extra money on the side.

Finally, work-from-home moms and dads can now configure a work schedule around their home and family schedules to continue to contribute to the workforce while balancing their full-time at-home duties. This particularly applies to women—one study showed that 83 percent of respondents believed that telecommuting retains talented women in the workforce instead of having them leave temporarily or completely to raise their children.

All of these benefits considered, many telecommuters find themselves experiencing less day-to-day stress. In fact, one study shows that four out of five workers agree with this sentiment. Less stress means more productivity, higher morale and better job retention—which is beneficial for all parties involved.

Telecommuting’s Drawbacks

Though telecommuting’s benefits are numerous, like with anything else, it has its drawbacks as well.

A lack of opportunities presents one issue that potential telecommuters have to contend with. One study shows that if the opportunity to telework was made available to them, 34 percent of respondents said they would be very likely to telecommute full time. That number is even higher for telecommuting part time. However, opportunities for these positions are not always available—and even worse, not always realized. Many jobs in the workforce could indeed be done from home, at least part time, but many employers have not yet embraced the concept.

A longer work week poses another problem for many, but not all, telecommuters. One study shows that for many workers, telecommuting means that they wind up working five to seven hours more per week than those who only work in an office setting. The study reports that the ability to work from home actually adds hours because if you don’t get your work done in the workplace, you can always take it home to work on it further.

According to one study, 62 percent of respondents said that social isolation among telecommuters was another issue. Many agree that the face-to-face interaction between employees and employers is important for workplace morale and generating ideas “by the water cooler.” This can be remedied by telecommuting employees coming into the office for a few hours or days a week, but many teleworkers do work at home full-time, so this may be something for employers to think about.

Another aspect of less social interaction is the potential for loneliness. Without regular interaction with others in the workplace, it may seem lonelier to always work from home away from everyone except your family, particularly if the telecommuters are working longer hours. Plus, more telecommuters are actually single, so interaction may be even less.

Managing the work-life balance, while a potential benefit, can also be a potential pitfall when it comes to telecommuting. Working from home rather than a traditional office can mean being bombarded with distractions and family obligations while telecommuters are trying to work. Laundry and dishes always need to be done, children need attending too, meals need to be cooked and family conversations often need to be had, but these can all get in the way of maintaining a completely unfettered workday.

Also, within maintaining a work-life balance comes the issue of work being carried over into family time, which can blur the line between what time is dedicated to which facet of life. If too much work is brought home, family members may feel neglected and vice versa. Keeping the two separated can be more difficult if a worker is not employed in a traditional office space.

Finally, businesses sometimes find that they have less accountability for their telecommuting workers, which may be troublesome for them. One study shows that 43 percent of telecommuters admitted to watching TV or a movie while they’re on the clock, and 20 percent admitted to playing video games during that time (though obviously this is not the majority of telecommuters).

Not being able to directly supervise may worry businesses, and in some cases, for good reason. To handle this, telecommuters need to establish firm and recurrent lines of communication that allow the businesses to know how the telecommuter’s workday is going even while he or she is not in the office.

What Yahoo Decided for Its Telecommuters

Not all companies see eye to eye on telecommuting. While some companies, including Yahoo, HP and Best Buy, have embraced telecommuting at one point or another, they have eventually recanted on the concept. In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ended the telecommuting program at the company, which generated a rash of criticism from employees and non-employees alike.

For example, work-from-home moms felt she was being a hypocrite for disbanding telecommuting—and effectively causing many women with children to leave their jobs or spend a fortune on childcare—while she was able to set up an entire nursery in her office for taking care of her own newborn baby—a luxury most women do not have.

The key arguments that support Mayer’s decision are the effect that telecommuting has on employers and the role that informal interaction in the workplace has for dissemination of information throughout an organization. One study showed that workers hanging out at the water cooler were more often than not actually having highly productive conversations about problems they’ve encountered in their jobs.

As for effects on the employer, Mayer argued that she found many full-time telecommuters not logging in to the company’s network enough and that the company’s offices were often empty on Fridays. With the company already in the shaky state that it is, Mayer decided it was best that telecommuters return to the workplace so that these problems might potentially be remedied.

After this decision was announced, HP and Best Buy too announced that their telecommuters must return to work. It was a setback for telecommuting, but not necessarily one that shakes up its future in the workplace.

Where Telecommuting Is Headed

According to The State of Telework in the U.S. report, based on current trends, with no growth acceleration, regular telecommuters will rise to 4.9 million by 2016, which is a 69 percent increase from the current level. Other studies suggest that this is a relatively safe number and that telecommuting with actually climb much higher and faster. For example, one study posits that 43 percent of U.S. workers will telecommute by 2016.

Telecommuting is on the rise as more companies, employees and freelancers are seeing the benefits. It will be interesting to wait and see if telecommuting takes over as a more significant number in the coming decade with the further adoption of technology and other techniques for working in the home.

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