Telecommuting offers genuine advantages to both employees and their organizations.
By Jim Johnson
In previous columns we've examined the issues and challenges that telecommuting places on MIS. This month, we explore the other side of the issue. Who works from home? What advantages do they bring to their organizations? What challenges do they and their managers face?
Estimates vary, but according to reports in the computer press, it seems that around seven million employees now fulfill their duties from home at least some of the time. This represents about a 20 percent increase since 1990, and some experts are predicting that by the turn of the century, this number will grow to 14 million--a full 10 percent of the work force. Sales, customer support, public relations and software engineering predominate among the professions represented by telecommuters. Salaries tend to be above average, an indication that working from home is still a relative privilege, usually reserved for senior or highly valued personnel.
But working from home is quickly outgrowing its reputation as a perk; if carefully implemented, a telecommuting policy can result in greater overall competitiveness while simultaneously solving problems for the organization. For example, a well-chosen, acclimatized telecommuter typically delivers at least a 10 percent increase in productivity, often significantly more. Sharing offices among telecommuters can allow an organization to get by with a smaller facility or postpone a move to more spacious (and expensive) quarters, a source of potentially substantial savings. And because employees enjoy the flexibility, comfort and freedom from traffic and parking hassles, employee turnover may be reduced, thereby cutting recruiting and related costs.
Managers new to the supervision of physically absent employees are understandably nervous, and managing telecommuters takes some getting used to. With commitment, open-mindedness and innovation, most managers can reorganize their techniques into a more efficient approach, with fewer distractions and a more sensible division of responsibilities.
Some of their concerns, however, are more than a matter of management adaptation. Candidates for telecommuting must be selected partly upon their demonstrated ability to structure their own time and achieve goals with minimal supervision. Even seasoned professionals may find the solitude daunting, and staffers can take as long as several months to come up to full speed. Telecommuting means an end to workplace distractions, but home-based distractions can be even more of a hazard. Having a parent working from home doesn't necessarily eliminate the need for child care; a sitter may be essential to keeping the parent focused and productive.
Most of us probably never think of office gossip as particularly valuable, but the lack of social contacts has proven to be a serious issue for some who work from home. Bonding with new staffers, resolving disagreements, picking up in-house career opportunities and perceiving systemic problems--all of these can be done only with difficulty over the phone or through e-mail. Maintaining a solid group dynamic with coworkers requires regular face-to-face contact; showing up for optional meetings, lunch breaks and after-work socializing may be a hassle, but it's essential to knowing what's really going on within an organization. In-house electronic mailing lists, newsgroups or World Wide Web forums can also help to fill in the gaps; home workers may wish to take a special initiative in fostering discussions or initiating get-togethers over these media.
Some organizations invest thousands of dollars in setting up hardware for each home worker and foot the bill for monthly network connections as well. But the cost doesn't have to be high; many staffers are willing use their home PCs for the job, and a small pool of laptops can go a long way if they are shared among part-time telecommuters. An employer who can't provide an ISDN line may shoulder the cost of a second phone line so staffers can be logged in while engaging in conversation. Support from MIS shouldn't be scrimped upon; particularly when starting out, providing remote workers with the right information, carefully selected hardware and software and a little training will help to keep costs down in the long run.
One critical area to consider is data security; some organizations invite disaster by being too casual about this, while others harbor unrealistic fears and implement draconian measures that users will naturally ignore or try to circumvent.
The hazard is real, but a consistent application of simple practices can address the problem effectively. Many of us instinctively hoard copies of valuable information, but this means that our organization's sensitive data is being entrusted to a relatively low-security residence; one simple burglary could be disastrous.
Staffers must acquire the frequently tedious practice of not storing any data at home overnight that they don't absolutely need. Likewise, backups are essential, but sensitive data should be archived only on the server side. Dialing directly into the LAN minimizes the chance of a password or session interception; if this kind of connection isn't possible, some robust, inexpensive methods of encrypting remote login sessions are now available, making Internet access a viable alternative. Telecommuting procedures must be written into an organization's security policy, and any organization lacking a comprehensive policy needs to develop one before taking the remote work plunge.
If this scenario seems a little overwhelming, bear in mind that working from home is just the beginning. What all of this is really building toward is a work environment in which many of us can work from anywhere, perhaps at any time. Many account reps and tech support people already work this way, and customers are growing to expect it. Instead of being a perk or a way of cutting costs, many organizations may soon find that remote work is a competitive necessity.
Jim Johnson is a certified personnel consultant and the principal of Options Unlimited, specializing in the placement of Unix professionals in the Washington, DC, area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.