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Telecommuting’s new opportunities " and challenges

Kris Richards

Telecommuting, or working from home, is a work arrangement in which employees enjoy flexibility in working location and hours. The daily commute to a central place of work is replaced by telecommunication connectivity such as dedicated circuits or high speed Internet connections. A successful telecommuting program requires a management style which is based on results and not on close scrutiny of individual employees.

Telecommuting is seen as an option to reduce traffic congestion and the resulting urban air pollution along with reduced petroleum use. Initial investments in the network infrastructure and hardware are offset by an increase in productivity and an overall greater well-being of telecommuting staff (more quality family time, less travel-related stress), which makes the arrangement attractive to companies, especially those who face large office overheads and other costs related to the need for a big central office (such as the need for extensive parking facilities).

Today’s virtual office includes unified messaging services for voice, fax and email. It also involves telecommuting via remote networking applications. Virtual offices have changed white-collar employment by enabling complex work processes and creating intensive dependence on information technology.

Telecommuting options increase the employability of groups, such as mothers with small children, the handicapped and people living in remote areas. The setup also offers possibilities for increased service, since telecommuters in different time zones allow a business the ability to have longer hours of operation.

Telecommuting and virtual offices have provided many advantages. Telecommuting also allows companies the capability to function during times when the office cannot be physically reached by staff due to adverse weather conditions. Telecommuting has actually forced service providers to increase network performance, improve reliability, improve architecture, and improve their strategies. Telecommuting allows for travel avoidance that saves on time, traffic jams, office space, parking space; and therefore, results in cost savings for the employer.

From an environmental point of view, if only 10 percent of the workforce telecommuted once a week, we’d save more than 1.2 million gallons of fuel, resulting in tons of avoided air pollution. Telecommuting provides employee flexibility, eases the working parent’s burden, increases employee productivity, and reduces absenteeism. Virtual offices allow employers to keep valuable employees, allow employers to hire employees otherwise not available, and have facilitated productive re-engineering of order-management and customer service processes.

There are drawbacks to telecommuting and virtual offices. Telecommuting, one author notes, has come to be viewed as more of a “complement rather than a substitute for work in the workplace.” As for the life of the home telecommuter, fellow employees in the home office sometimes resent home telecommuters. The home telecommuter becomes socially isolated and further job advancement is more difficult to achieve. Work hours at home can either be not enough or too much, and there may be too many distractions at home. Employers risk loss of data confidentiality and integrity because of the lack of access control in the home office. Certain office functions such as corporate culture, loyalty, communication, access to people and managerial control have yet to be replaced by the virtual office.

Telecommuting can mean more than just work performed from the home; the extension of telecommuting is distributed work. Distributed work entails the conduct of organizational tasks in places that extend beyond the confines of traditional brick-and-mortar offices. It can refer to workers performing work more effectively at any appropriate locations, such as their homes and customers’ sites through the application of information and communication technology. An example is financial planners who meet clients regularly during lunchtime or after traditional business hours with access to various financial planning tools and offerings on their mobile computers. Or sales executives who need access to inventories real time so that when they meet with clients they can determine availability of stock and place orders for immediate shipment. These work arrangements are likely to become more popular with current trends towards greater customization of services and virtual organizing. Distributed work offers great potential for firms to reduce costs, enhance competitive advantage and agility, access a greater variety of scarce talents, and improve employee flexibility, effectiveness and productivity. It has gained in popularity in the West.

Creation of virtual offices helps management because it reduces overhead, reduces office space requirements, increases productivity and reduces staff turnover. Initially, managers may view the teleworker as experiencing a drop in productivity during the first few months. This drop occurs as employees, peers, and the manager adjust to a new regime. The drop could also be the result of to inadequate office setup. Managers need to be patient and let the teleworker adapt. It can be claimed that as much as 70 minutes of each day in a regular office are wasted by interruptions, unproductive talk around the water cooler and photocopier and other distractions. Eventually, productivity of the teleworker will climb.

Management needs to recognize the communication barriers that telecommuters experience. The feeling of alienation can be very difficult for the teleworker. The job should be clearly defined as well as its objectives. Performance measures should be thorough and apparent.

Managers need to be aware that although overhead decreases, the cost of technology becomes greater. Information technology managers experience greater demands because of user requirements for remote access through laptops, personal digital assistants, and home computers. Use of non-standard software can create problems. Setting up security and virtual private networks increase the demands for IT.

Managers are accustomed to managing by observation and not necessarily by results. This causes a serious obstacle in organizations attempting to adopt telecommuting. Liability and workers’ compensation can become serious issues. Companies considering telecommuting should be sure to check on local legal issues, union issues, and zoning laws. Telecommuting should incorporate training and development that includes evaluation, team meetings, written materials, and forums. Operational and administrative support should be redesigned to support the virtual office environment. Facilities need to be coordinated properly in order to support the virtual office and technical support should be coordinated properly. The conclusion for managers working within telecommuting organizations is that new approaches to evaluating, educating, organizing, and informing workers should be adopted.

Kris Richards is president of Insight Technology Solutions in Reno. Contact him at 823-7910 or through http://www.insight-ts.com.