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Telecommuting: Benefits and Challenges Essay

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Telecommuting is the practice of working from one’s home, or at a satellite location near one’s home, where employees use communication and computer technology to interface with internal and external stakeholders (Gainey, Kelly, and Hill, 1999). The advent of telecommuting has changed the profile of the U.S. workforce dramatically. The workers are no longer confined within the walls of the office. They are becoming more technologically savvy and work on flexible timings at remote locations (Mason, 1993). According to several studies, telecommuting has been found to be beneficial to both employees and managers (McNemey, 1995). However, there are both advantages and disadvantages for both the employees and the managers on personal, organizational, and societal fronts.

From the standpoint of the employees, there are some factors that attract them to telecommuting and these include a desire to become more productive, a need to better balance work/family obligations, a desire to reduce commuting time, a need for a more flexible schedule, and a desire to be one’s, own boss. Many experts believe that interest in telecommuting will increase because young workers moving into the workforce are much more comfortable with computers and grasp the potential of this way of working (Moorcroft and Bennett 1995). In a study by Hartman et al (1992), telecommuters expressed four factors that attracted them to telecommuting: greater personal flexibility; reduced time spent commuting; increased productivity when working at home; and the ability to spend more time with the family.

Managers favour telecommuting for many reasons: it can be used as a tool to recruit and retain highly skilled workers, especially information-technology workers. regardless of where the company or employee is located (Avery and Zabel, 2001). Telecommuting can also help small firms enlist the help of experienced professionals on a contractual basis (Davey 1998). Companies have also used telecommuting as a strategy to utilize new groups of workers, such as the disabled (Gibson et al, 2002). Telecommuting also helps in cutting costs by saving on real estate, overhead and relocation costs (Schepp and Schepp 1995). Telecommuting is also seen as a strategy to increase productivity (Eldib and Minoli 1995; Nilles 1998). However, Richter (1996) views telecommuting as part of the movement toward flatter, non-hierarchical organizations. It can eliminate layers of middle management. In addition, it reflects the trend toward managing by results rather than by sight (Avery and Zabel, 2001).

Telecommuting has been defined in many ways, but all such definitions are based on two concepts: the office is not the only place where work can be conducted; and secondly, information technology (IT) is necessary for telecommuting (Baruch, 2001). Mariani (2000) defines telecommuting as the case in which an employee is paid for work conducted at an alternative worksite, so total commuting time is reduced. The success of telecommuting is seen in the fact that the total number of telecommuters has increased from 1990 to 2000 by 23 per cent (Census Bureau). This is double the growth of the labour market and since 2000; telecommuting seems to be growing in popularity. Balaker points out that about 4.5 million Americans telecommute most workdays, roughly 20 million telecommute for some period at least once per month, and nearly 45 million telecommute at least once per year. For telecommuting, the main requisites are high-speed computers, reliable communication lines, access to the Internet and Intranets from remote locations, and the ability to move files around (Mills, et. al., and 2001).

On the personal level, many studies have reported that there is increased employee job satisfaction among telecommuters (Manochehri and Pinkerton, 2003; Tremblay, 2002). Telecommuters have reported that they tend to be more relaxed at home and hence can produce better work at home (Harpaz, 2002). They are also able to balance their domestic responsibilities along with their office work. The flexible working hours offers them better chances to socialize. In telecommuting, the workers have the option of working in their chosen area and also enjoy the option of working for multiple bosses. (Harpaz, 2002). There is less travel time and expenditure involved in telecommuting. According to the 2000 American Community Survey, an “average” telecommuter can save 57.6 minutes a day (Potter, 2003). Applying the concept of displacement theory, there is no more time available for work and this could result in greater productivity (Crandall and Gao, 2005). There is less distraction in the work environment at home and less stress because the employees are protected from office politics (Manochehri and Pinkerton, 2003; Robertson, Maynard, McDevitt, 2003). Another benefit on the personal front is that telecommuting allows people who are unable to travel such as parents with small children, the elderly and the disabled and also people who are living in far places to be employed (Baruch, 2001).

From the organizational viewpoint, it has been found that telecommuting is related to increased productivity. Salespersons at AT&T who were telecommuting increased sales by 20% to 40% and AT&T managers who telecommuted realized increases of 8% to 29% in productivity (McCune, 1998). This is also supported by the Gartner Group, a global information consulting company, which reported increased productivity from 10% to 40% due to telecommuting (Nie, 1999). Increased productivity may be due to reduced commuting and longer hours of work (Mariani, 2000), peaceful surroundings and a harmonious lifestyle. (Gibson, Blackwell, Dominicis, and Demerath, 2002; Harpaz, 2002; Potter, 2003). Moreover, telecommuting leads to a reduction in operating cost and lesser absenteeism (Gibson, et. al., 2002; Potter, 2003; Solomon, 2000). According to Potter (2003), after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, telecommuting is seen as one that enhances both personal safety and organizational safety due to the geographical disperse of employees. From the point of view of the management, the human resources department is offered greater recruitment options due to telecommuting (Manochehri and Pinkerton, 2003). According to the report by Ted Balaker (2005), telecommuting increases job opportunities for handicapped people and also increases the profitability of the firm (Gibson et al, 2002). Telecommuting enables an organization to provide flexible working hours for employees and continuous service to customers.

Telecommuting can also prove to be beneficial to society on the whole. By reducing the travel of telecommuters, it helps to reduce the amount of pollution and oil consumption (Mills, Wong-Ellison, Werner, and Clay (2001), less noise in the environment and less number of road accidents (Harpaz, 2002). In fact, the Fishwrap Telecommuting Index reported that the 19.6 million U.S. telecommuters in Jan. 2001 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39,000 tons of hydrocarbons; 590,000 tons of carbon monoxide; and 31,000 tons of nitrogen oxide each day they did not drive to work (Smartcommute.com, 2006).

Telecommuters do feel isolated while working (Baruch, 2001; Bussing, 1998; Harpaz, 2002; Manochehri and Pinketon, 2003). The loneliness and frustration due to this isolation can lead to burnout and Manochehri and Pinkerton (2003) say that this is a huge challenge to be faced in the context of telecommuting. According to a study by Khalifa and Davidson (2000), telecommuters are likely to be insecure regarding their promotions and fear losing good projects (Solomon, 2000). Due to their social isolation, telecommuters are likely to have problems in building peer relationships and exerting influence over colleagues and events related to their work (Baruch, 2001). Some telecommuters have reported that they do not feel a sense of belonging in their organization (Bussing, 1998). Though it has been pointed out that a home is a place with minimal distractions, for some people, it may be the place of distractions. In that case, work is likely to suffer. According to Tietze (2002) work and home should be kept at a distance apart for maintaining balance. He further points out that another limitation is that telecommuters are not able to take leave even when they are sick.

As far as the management is concerned, telecommuting creates challenges for them in the realms of measuring performance, creating a sense of teamwork and ensuring the safety and health of the telecommuters. A manager does not have direct control over the telecommuter (Harpaz, 2002; Potter, 2003; Robertson, Maynard, McDevitt, 2003). He is also not able to know if the employee needs feedback or help (Manochehri and Pinkerton, 2003). Performance appraisal is very difficult because of a lack of direct contact and proper communication. In telecommuting communication takes place mainly through computers or phones. Hence problems with technology can hinder HR tasks such as performance appraisal. Another limitation in telecommuting is the security of information. It is felt that sensitive work information may be hacked or stolen in a telecommuter environment (Leonard, 2001). Therefore there is a limitation to the kind of work that can be done in the home environment.

When people work in isolation, it is difficult to bring about a sense of belonging t a team (Baruch 2001; Gibson, et. al. 2002). Synergistic advantages are also lost when team members become more remote (Mills, et. al, 2001).

On the societal level, isolation can break down workplace socializing. The result is individualism that can lead to serious problems in society (Potter, 2003). Baruch (2001) says that this individualism will create an autistic society where people do not have any kind of attachments to one another. Sias and Cahill (1998) have shown that telecommuting acts as a hindrance in maintaining interpersonal relationships.

Some recommendations for the managers of telecommuters are:

  • Management should be careful while recruiting to take the right kind of persons for the telecommuting jobs. Not all employees are suited to do work at home. Only those people, who love to stay at home, are not interested in social contacts and honest can be trusted with a telecommuting job (Baruch, 2001; Harpaz, 2002). As performance appraisal is difficult, employees should be encouraged to work directly before switching to telecommuting. Through this method, their capacity can be measured before telecommuting work is entrusted to them. Women should be preferably chosen for telecommuting work. Studies show that women have greater suitability to the telecommuting environment (Lind, 1999). Due to their role as family caregivers, they value the flexibility in work timings offered by the telecommuting environment. Tremblay (2002) has shown that women tend to enjoy telecommuting more.
  • Only some jobs are suited to telecommuting. Jobs that are based on technology are better suited to telecommuting. Tremblay (2002) finds that those that involve writing, accounting, management/administration duties, software and Web design, and CAD/computer graphics functions are best suited for telecommuting. Manochehri and Pinkerton (2003) suggest sales, telemarketing, and consulting are good telecommuting jobs. Reservations, sales and marketing functions can also be carried out at home (Mills, et. al., 2001).
  • Management must support telecommuters by supervision even though they are not physically present at work. This is of course challenging. It might require special training as that given in the Pfizer Company (Scott, 2000).
  • There needs to be a different kind of appraisal process for assessing the performance of telecommuters. As there is no direct observation by the management, there must be specific results criteria (Baruch, 2001; Mills, et. al., 2001). This means, first, goals and objectives should be set. Then, the performance should be measured against that target benchmark. Mixed methods of employee evaluation that involve both direct methods of appraisal and technology-based methods appear best suited to measuring the performance of telecommuters (Cooper, Kurland, Bailey, 2000).
  • Human resource managers need to adapt to telecommuting. They should promote a culture that supports telecommuting. This needs the organization to be capable of promoting “diversity” in its mindset. By diversity, Baruch explains, is meant that the organization must be able to manage different needs and different modes of work (Baruch, 2001: 117). There should be constant communication among the employees in order to maintain the organizational culture. But this would be a difficult task (Manochehri and Pinkerton, 2003).
  • A decentralized organization is best suited to adopting telecommuting options because of its openness to accepting new work practices.
  • It is the duty of the management to provide both technical and emotional support to the telecommuter by responding to requests for better equipment and services (Hartman et al, 1992).
  • Whenever possible, telecommuters should be included in regular meetings, planning sessions, training opportunities, and social activities (Hartman et al, 1992).
  • Management should implement an effective performance evaluation system.

A good manager is one who can assist telecommuting employees to organize their work. He must understand the timeframes involved in completing tasks, communicate work expectations, and work with the telecommuting employee to develop attainable timelines. He should also review status to determine progress and have appropriate mechanisms for periodical checking. A good manager always reinforces positive behaviour and provides the telecommuters with timely and ongoing feedback.

There are two major problems in the context of telecommuting. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “employers must take steps to reduce or eliminate any work-related safety or health problems they become aware of through on-site visits or other means” (Robertson, et. al., 2003:31). This becomes almost impossible in the case of telecommuting. However, the issue has been partially resolved. OSHA’s current position is that it will not inspect homes or hold the employer responsible for keeping the home safe (Mills, et. al., 2001; Robertson, et. al., 2003) but the employer is responsible for all work-related injuries even if it happens in the home. The second problem is that some people feel that through telecommuting women and less skilled workers are exploited. The issue remains unresolved.

It has been found that the job satisfaction of telecommuters depends on three aspects of direct supervisory support: technical support, emotional support and performance evaluation system (Hartman et al, 1992). The evaluation system for a telecommuting environment should be able to effectively measure both the quantity and quality of work done at home.

Managing Telecommuters

As in the case of managing any kind of employee, managing telecommuters demands communication, organization, and trust between employee and supervisor. Traditionally, managers are used to dealing with employees and their work directly. In telecommuting, managers need to deal with technical expertise, time zone differences and scheduling conflicts. However, more fundamentally, the management of telecommuters requires the skill of delegation and building of trust. Managers need to provide their telecommuting workers with purpose and process. They need to clarify team goals and individual goals and give them the framework for achieving those goals. Glen Tines of Hewlett Packard’s Strategic Change Services says that social warmth, spontaneous humour and social bonding can happen only when people come together. Hence, HP core teams meet every quarter and spend a few days working together (Ventrice, 1999). The teams at HP use trust-building strategies at the virtual workplace: starting conference calls with an opportunity for everyone to check in personally before moving on to project status, building team spirit by posting personal profiles online, creating personal dimension and promoting discussions among them (Ventrice, 1999).

The following tips may be useful for a manager of telecommuters:

  • As observation is not possible in the case of telecommuting, management by objectives is best suited for telecommuting.
  • Regular working hours should be established on a regular basis.
  • Projects should have fixed but flexible deadlines in the case of telecommuting. As with any worker, projects should be broken into stages so that managers can review not only the final result but the work in progress.
  • Establishing channels of communication are vital for the success of a telecommuting program. It is important for the telecommuter to know how to be in contact with his supervisors – by phone, e-mail, fax, or through a company intranet system? Usually, a combination of these is used (NFIB, 2002)
  • Security issues regarding Internet or intranet connections should be clarified. This includes the assigning of passwords or codes, and access to specific records and files (NFIB, 2002).
  • It should be arranged for the telecommuter to report on a weekly or daily basis to supervisors and whenever possible, face-to-face meetings should be encouraged.
  • Telecommuters should be asked to carry cell phones or pages when away from the home office during regular company hours (NFIB, 2002).
  • There should be policies for reimbursement of expenses for phone calls, office supplies, equipment, etc.
  • Telecommuters should be encouraged to have relations with in-office staff and management for information gathering and transfer of information purposes.

Performance Assessment

Performance management is meant to align employee’s work behaviours with the organization’s goals. Thus, a performance management system consists of the processes used to identify, encourage, measure, evaluate, improve, and reward employee performance at work. Most systems of performance management have several parts: defining performance in terms of strategic goals, empowering employees to deal with performance contingencies, measuring performance and providing feedback and coaching (Sims, 2002). Quantity, quality, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness are four general measures that should be assessed for a telecommuter.

Telecommuting involves managing by objectives and results rather than by simply observing an employee. In the telecommuting environment, supervisors should rely on two primary criteria to evaluate telecommuting employees’ work: quality of work and quality completion of projects. A successful performance evaluation process requires that supervisors and employees jointly set clear performance objectives, including identifying the specific tasks and behaviour objectives to be accomplished during a performance cycle; establishing how to measure the objectives; prioritizing work by identifying which results are most crucial and those that can be deferred; analyzing how objectives support workgroup goals. The SMART model can be used to develop behavioural objectives: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Managing by objectives is a management tool that allows measurement of performance as well. Implementing MBO’s can be easily accomplished (HR-UMW, 2002). First, an itemized list of expectations of the employer from the telecommuter is prepared on a periodic basis. Expectations should be specific and clear. The telecommuter should be included in the process of establishing objectives. A document that is somewhat like a contract between the employer and the telecommuter is prepared and signed. The results can be tracked through meetings and written records. A matrix, a graph, or a simple check-off list may be used to record progress. This management tool allows supervisors to manage an employee’s performance without focusing on how the employee does the task. The focus is on the output of the telecommuter. A performance agreement that allows the employee and supervisor to work together in establishing the characteristics, issues and concerns about the job increases accountability, fairness and provides a platform for mutual respect (HR-UMW, 2007).

Thus telecommuting is a modern expansion of the workspace that is true without any geographical boundaries. Management of telecommuters is a challenging task that calls for Management by Objectives. This management tool is based on measuring the performance of the telecommuter by setting goals, measuring output and recording progress. MBO links management to performance management and guides the entire telecommuting process.


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