The days of reporting to the office at 8:00 am, taking lunch at noon, and driving home at 5:00, have eroded over the past few decades. People today are faced with different situations that make this type of routine unfeasible if they want to have a career. Women are no longer the stay-at-home moms that they use to be. Many families are force into having a dual career household to make ends meet or single parenting has not left that as an option. Businesses have had to make changes too if they want to keep the employees that they have and also to get the employees they want. Until the dawning of the age of computers and connectivity that allowed users/employees to work outside of the office a concept of ‘Flex-Time’ was introduced. This allowed the employee to match their work hours to their needs. Technology has advanced now to the point though where business can employ full-time individuals and have them work from nearly any location they want. This has brought us into the age of ‘Telecommuting’. Telecommuting has many pros and con’s still attached to it, but as technology continues to improve in this area the cons are fading away, especially in regards to the speed data is traveling at. This is not to say that there will be a point that there are not any drawbacks to telecommuting, because there are many. The loss of personal contact and face-to-face conversations, security, and being able to discipline yourself to this type of work environment are just a few of the problems that can present themselves. Telecommuting with a certain amount of investment and time can prove to be a very profitable way of life for many corporations and for employees.
Telecommuting has really become a feasible idea only in the past decade. The ability to be able to communicate through a computer at home with the network at work at speeds that make it functional are really just now falling into place. Modems have been used for several years but have the drawback of being incredibly slow in their transfer rate. Currently using a 56k analog modem, which means that the data can transfer at a rate of 56 kilobytes per second, is a far cry from the 100 megabytes per second used on internal networks. Work cannot fully function in any real time way using an analog modem. It just does not provide the user with a quick enough transfer rate to make doing business work at home a time saving idea. What has made telecommuting work is the creation of DSL. DSL stands for Digital Service Line, which is able to transfer data at from 1.5 Mbps up to 8 Mbps. The DSL uses the same copper wire that phones do but they do it at different bandwidths that allow both data and voice communication to occur simultaneously and at much greater speed. This is nearly 20 times faster than an analog modem, which by the way is unable to share with both voice and data simultaneously, and makes doing work from home via a computer a realistic idea. Companies are now able to create VPN, Virtual Private Networks, through these DSL channels which makes the user at home appear virtually as if they were at work (Communications News, Dec 2000 v 37 il2 p24, Where’s the voice in remote access? (Industry Trend or Event) Sanjay Khatri).
With the major hurdle of providing a stable, fast enough link achieved what benefits are corporations finding by using telecommuting in their business. The company Putnam Investments found that during the 80’s and early 90’s job fairs were packed with people. It was not hard to find good qualified people to fill vacancies within the organization. Today, however, that situation is much different. Companies have had to restructure their recruiting process to acquire the people that they want. Another aspect Putnam investments found was that they were running out of office space. The company is located in Boston and Boston’s real estate market has experienced a sharp increase. With companies trying to cut costs while still supply the services and products that create the profits they are finding it tougher and tougher to do this with so many rising costs. This is what led them to trying out telecommuting.
Renee Geezil, an employee of Putnam Investments commuted 60 miles each way to and from work. She requested that she be allowed to work from home. The company thought that is was worth a trial and agreed. The company purchased a computer, fax machine, printer and a second phone line for Renee to use at home. The results from this first attempt in telecommuting were so successful that the company decided to expand more and more to defray the problems of office crowding. The company soon had 330 employees working from home. They called this part of their company the [email protected]
This opened a whole new door for the company. They now were finding that they could recruit in areas that were not so tight in their availability of qualified individuals. The labor market was tight in the immediate area but they found that in Maine and Vermont there were a high number of college graduates who were under-employed. In fact Vermont ranked 4th highest in number of residents with at least a four-year degree or higher and that over 98% of Vermont had access to a DSL connection. This was a goldmine in the eyes of the company. A study of Vermont residents also found that 25,000 of them felt underemployed and 66% said they preferred to work at home if given the choice (Action Research, a Burlington, VT based research firm). Another plus for the Vermont area was the fact that people from Vermont are very conscience of the natural surrounding and given the opportunity to have home offices vice office parks with trees being torn down and roads being made to support them was an attractive alternative.
The company advertised the positions in two local papers, which they received over 1,300 applications for. The applicants were then selected based on written and oral skills, experience and education. They also had to prove that they had enough room at home to design an office and lastly the telephone company was called in to verify the phone lines could support the DSL connections. The company provided the high-speed connections needed along with a computer and any necessary items. They received on-the-job training and career development assistance at local colleges and also through on-line courses. The employees were also promised that they would be considered for promotions.
One of the main problems they discovered was that working at home also meant being isolated from fellow co-workers. Telecommuters would also feel disconnected from the employer. To assist in helping employees with this problem they hosted on-line chats with fellow co-workers, provided an electronic newsletter, and each morning were greeted with company updates. This all proved to be a very successful operation. The employees were happy with their jobs and the company was expanding with much lower operating costs.
This was so successful that they expanded upon this idea when the need for part-time help for data entry was needed. The company had a hard time finding applicants that were willing to work in the main office part-time. The company sought ideas to help and came up with the idea of outfitting a classroom at one of the local colleges with computers and offering students a chance to have some on-the-job training and work experience. The students were allowed to work a maximum of 10 hours per week and were guaranteed a permanent position on-site or at home when they graduated. This was so successful that they expanded the idea to two other colleges. The idea of telecommuting does not always have to mean working out of a home. As seen in the above situation groups of people can work together in remote locations thus opening a whole new concept for employers (Home Office Computing, Dec 2000 v18 i12 p102, Cultivating Teleworkers. (Industry trend or Event) William Van Winkle).
Telecommuting is not always as successful as is the case with Putnam Investments. There can be several disadvantages. One of the leading current problems involves security of the information flowing back and forth. The home computer is looked at as an easy ‘backdoor’ by many computer hackers, that is to say it is an easy way for people to get into company computers do to lack of security. Most corporations’ use what is referred to as a ‘firewall’. A firewall is able to block many outside intrusions into the system but in order for people to work from home they have to be able to get through this protection layer and they themselves are not protected by any type of firewall. It is believed that telecommuters pose the biggest threat to security. Home workers like to have a sense of control over their machines that is not found in the workplace. Many people not only use their home computers for work but also for personal use and because of this want as little restrictions placed on their systems. The telecommuter also is able to disable many of the security features put in place because of the access they need to be given. The use of VPN’s also work as a way to bring in email that may contain viruses to the main corporation’s network without detection. Antivirus software is becoming more routine, even on the personal computer but home users tend to be reluctant to update as often as is necessary. Technology is getter better and should be able to solve many of these problems but changing the behavior of people while they work at home will remain the number one challenge (eWeek, Nov 20, 2000 p18, Security hole: Home office – Telecommuting brings thorny problems to security’s front lines. (Industry Trend or Event) Scott Berinato).
Beside security there are other problems that are even harder to find good solutions for. The face-to-face daily contact that people have in the office is vitally important. This is a time where co-workers are able to share ideas and work together to solve company problems. Interpersonal skills are skills that most companies look for in there employees and if they allow them to work alone away from the office all the time these individuals will find it hard to make promotions and advance in their own careers. Some individuals might not aspire to move up the corporate ladder but for those who do this as seen as a hindrance in their development (Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, Oct 2000 v29 i13 p112, The Pros and Cons Of a Virtual Office. Susan Thea Posnock).
Another problem not commonly looked at when considering telecommuting is whether the telecommuter will be able to separate their family life from their work. It is found that by working at home some individuals incur a higher degree of stress do to the fact they cannot allocate their time properly. These same individuals are also known to have a hard time going on vacation and leaving the job at home. This can cause problems with the individual’s family life as well as take away from the job performance making telecommuting a way of life that should not be used by these individuals. Telecommuting is not for everyone. A plan some employers use is to make employees split their time between home and the office. This tends to keep the employee focused on their work while also giving the time for some flexibility. There is also another unique problem with telecommuting that is about as far removed from the actual occurrence of it as possible while still being the root cause, employees who are not able to telecommute resent those who are able. This can cause friction and animosity in the workplace, which hinders the productiveness of the company (Employee Benefit News, Jan 1, 2001 pITEM01008015, Telecommuting blurs work, personal life. (Brief Article) Karen Lee).
The benefits are still seen as outweighing the drawbacks. The number one reason people choose to work at home is to have a better balance of work and family life, at least for those who can separate the two. Less than 15% of telecommuters work during the standard workday hours, 55% of their time is spent on the computer or phone and surprisingly 7% is still spent on direct face-to-face contact (Home Office Computing, Jan 2001 v19 i1 p11, Nothing Is Unworkable. (Industry Trend or Event) Eric Grevstad). Ikea held a ‘Work at Home Day’ at their store and polled people to find out why they telecommute. The answers were somewhat surprising but not too hard to believe. Of the people who filled out the questionnaire 43% said they worked at home because they felt that they were fatter than others in the office, 68% did not like using the public restrooms at work and 54% wanted the tax deduction for their home office. Other more important benefits are a 30% savings in office space and overhead costs for the company, managers can supervise greater amounts of individuals, and studies have shown that at-home workers earn 28% more than the average office worker (OfficeSolutions, Oct 2000 v17 i10 p40, Successful Telecommuting. (Industry Trend or Event) Leslie Mizell). Productivity among telecommuters is 22 to 45% higher due to fewer interruptions, less sick time, people don’t have to miss work because their children are sick or weather related problems. Nortel a company that is considered a leader in the telecommuting wave claims that telecommuters have a 11% higher level of job satisfaction, 16% better retention rate and are more likely to recommend the company to others to work there as compared to their counterparts that work in the office (eWeek, Oct 23, 2000 p81, Telecommuting revolution. (Industry trend or Event) Lisa Kosan).
Group telecommuting is also becoming more popular. This brings together benefits for both the company and the employees. The company is able to set up satellite offices in areas that are closer to the employees residences while still providing them with a sense of being part of the team by having them work with others on a daily basis. Often the office space is found at a much cheaper rate than it would be if they were commuting to the main office and it also opens opportunities to go where the talent is located. Group telecommuting tends to work best when the groups are small and the group is linked together under a common function. The American Dairy Association was able to move a group out of a Manhattan office and save $50,000 a year in office lease expense. Group telecommuting stills suffers some of the same drawbacks that individual telecommuting does but not usually as severe (Crain’s new York Business, Oct 30, 2000 v16 p31, Out of Sight; When teams of employees telecommute, it’s great for the bottom line but tough on communication. (Brief Article) Joanne Cleaver).
So with all the benefits and all the disadvantages how can companies make telecommuting work. Glenn Lovelace who use to work for Nortel Co and is now CEO of his own private consulting firm thinks he has found the best method. He believes that most companies fail because they do not understand the amount of money and time that needs to be invested to get the desired results. He recommends that when a company is looking towards telecommuting they need to first begin with a small pilot program. This pilot program needs the funding to meet their every need and at least one years worth of financial investment is needed. With that in place they can evaluate the progress of the program at set intervals and decide what is working and what isn’t. After the year is up and they find that they understand what is needed then the company is ready to move the idea into other departments. Another key Lovelace recommends to making this work is to have redundancy. In computer lingo that means to have backups to your backups. Telecommuters must have a way to connect if there main connection goes down. What is commonly used to facilitate this is to have mirrored sites. A mirrored site is when all the information is duplicated and placed on a system separate from the main system. This will allow people to always be able to connect and complete the work they need to do (Home Office Computing, Jan 2001 v19 i1 p90, The Telenetwork Puzzle. (Industry Trend or Event) Lisa Roberts).
Telecommuting has come along way in a relatively short period of time. Companies are finding that there are major cost advantages to using telecommuting for many of their functions. The telecommuters are also benefiting by this in creating their own hours and adjusting their family life with their work life at levels never before seen. The disadvantages are becoming less and less the more technology improves and hopefully in the near future advancements in teleconferencing will improve the personal contact that is missing. While teleconferencing will never replace face-to-face contact nor will it ever replace the brainstorming that occurs at the water fountain but it will save money for the business and it will make some employees more productive. Telecommuting is here for the long run, now it’s just a matter of how to make it perfect.