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TELECOMMUTING/TELEWORK PRACTICES TODAY

January 29, 2012

Telecommuting or telework is a work relationship when employees perform work at home or some other off-site location rather than in a central work location.  The term,
“telecommuting” was first coined in 1973 to describe alternative work arrangements in which work that is customarily done in an office is done at home or at some other off-site location.

The original and most common telecommuting arrangement involves workers at home linked to their offices through telephones, fax machines, and personal computers. Employees normally divide their time between the employer’s office and the home office. This arrangement works especially well for persons whose work involves mostly
reading and writing and very little interpersonal communication. Of course, today there are variations of the original work-at-home model including employees who might work from a satellite work center, nomadic executives who travel extensively and maintain control over projects through the use of telephone, fax, and modem-linked computers and employees who work entirely outside of the office and not necessarily just at home.

Depending on who you count as a telecommuter, the number of telecommuters ranges from between 2.5 million (those who consider home their primary place of work) and 44 million (includes anyone who works at home at least once a year). The 44 million number is interesting in that it would suggest over 30% (U.S. adult working population in
late 2011 was 140 million) of the working population telecommutes at some point in a year.

A more recent study, however, by WorldatWork  conducted in 2010 and titled, “Telework 2011 – A WorldatWork Special Report,” takes a more practical view of telework and finds it in wide use. The study defined teleworkers as anyone who has worked an entire day at least once a month. Using this definition, the study found that 26 million workers telecommuted in 2010 or nearly 20% of the U.S. adult working population.

And this number has actually declined since 2008 when there were about 34 million telecommuters. The reason for the decline, however, according to the WorldatWork study was a combination of factors including fewer workers in the workforce overall due to high unemployment, higher anxiety surrounding job security and a lack of awareness of telework options.

Overall, the WorldatWork study found that even as the total number of teleworkers decreased between 2008 and 2010, the percentage of people who teleworked more often than once a month increased. In 2010, 84% of teleworkers did so one day per week or more, up from 72% in 2008. In addition, the study also found that the use telecommuting or telework was being used in various ways and not just one. This includes: (a) Ad hoc or occasional telework (e.g., employee is waiting at home for a repairperson); (b) Telework scheduled once a month; (c) Telework scheduled once a week; and (d) Full-time telework.

In March 2011, Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership focused on demonstrating the tangible value of telework, announced the results of its National Telework Week, an effort that encouraged employees to telework during the week of Feb. 14-18, 2011. Underwritten by Cisco Systems Inc., the post-Telework Week report found that during that week, 39,694 employees teleworked, 86 percent of whom worked for the federal government. They collectively saved $2.7 million in commuting costs, and gained back more than 148,000 hours by not commuting. Teleworking two days a week translates to a $3,439 annual raise and saves 200 hours a year for employees not commuting
every day, the report said.

Also, sixty percent of organizations surveyed by the Telework Exchange said that management is more open to and encouraging of telework than it was one year ago. More than three-fourths (76 percent) of employees said they accomplished more while teleworking, and the employers involved reported increased employee work/life balance and
satisfaction.

The majority of telecommuters are mid- to upper-mid-level professionals, administrators, technical employees, and clerical employees. Positions that have adapted well to telecommuting include typing, data entry, writing, editing, and telemarketing because they involve a great deal of independent work and frequently require little face-to-face contact with other people.

Some companies prepare a list of jobs designated for telecommuting. Others allow a manager and an employee to discuss adapting an individual job to a telecommuting arrangement.

Generally speaking, telecommuting programs are very flexible and accommodate a variety of different work styles. Sometimes, employees are free to work hours that are convenient for them, as long as they establish core hours during which the employer and co-workers can contact them.

Other workers, however, cannot have such flexibility. Reservations agents, for example, must be available during a set schedule covering most or all of their workday.

The potential benefits for employers are not limited to enhanced recruitment and retention of employees. They also include the potential to lower administrative, benefits, and facilities costs.

Among the advantages of telecommuting cited by employers are the following:

  1. Telecommuting
    employees often are more productive because they are not distracted by workplace socializing or office politics.
  2. Sick leave can decrease because slightly ill employees will feel well enough to work from home, and others can work while caring for ill dependents.
  3. Overhead costs for parking spaces, office space, utilities, and supplies may decrease. Usually, telecommuters either share office space or relinquish their space.
  4. Workers who do not wish to relocate when their company moves can continue to work for the company long-distance.

Although there are many benefits to employers for establish telecommuting, such programs also present potential problems. Many employers are concerned whether they can trust employees to work continuously during scheduled production hours and to record their work hours honestly, because no supervisor is present in most telecommuting arrangements. To help compensate for the inability to supervise workers visually, two alternatives have emerged: electronic monitoring and adopting a management-by-objective philosophy.

Employers concerned with the performance of their employees outside the supervised setting today can also monitor work patterns through software packages that measure the amount of time an employee spends logged onto a company computer, the number of keystrokes of data entry, or the time a reservation agent or similar worker spends on handling calls.

There’s no one hard-and-fast telecommuting policy; each company needs to consider its own requirements when creating its policy regarding telecommuting. A good start for any new telecommuting arrangement is to get a signed telecommuting agreement between the employer and telecommuting employee that explains requirements for compliance, proprietary and confidentiality, log-in/log-out procedures, discussions on the telecommuter’s requirements to attend on-site meetings, and an escape clause that allows the company to terminate the telecommuting arrangement at any time and that the employee may be required to return to the traditional on-site working relationship.

It’s also a good idea to create a safety checklist to ensure the employee feels confident and that he or she is working under safe conditions. Employers need to manage health and safety risks arising from telecommuting such as fire, electrical problems, ergonomics, air quality, and security. Liability issues, such as snow on sidewalks, should be
addressed before telecommuting begins. The employer should also address the fact that, if necessary, their employer can inspect equipment and monitor their performance.

In addition, you should establish the positions that are eligible for telecommuting; or the tasks that can be done remotely. At the same time, make sure the policy clearly
spells out which positions will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill or hold by telecommuting.

When assembling a home office, the employer needs to determine what equipment and supplies will be provided by the company. Telecommuters often begin working with their own equipment, or their employer’s spare equipment, or use their own computers. In case of lost or stolen equipment, it might be necessary to expand the corporate liability insurance to cover accidents outside the office. If the worksite is established in the telecommuter’s home, the homeowner’s or rental insurance might be sufficient. However, the company might decide to assume any additional premium costs rather than require the employee to pay for them.

In summary, telecommuting has come a long way in the almost 40 years since it started. Although it’s not for everyone, it should definitely be an option that should be seriously and carefully considered. 01.29.2012

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