Telecommuting is on the Rise

In light of the changing employment landscape, you might logically wonder if telecommuting can work for you. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the number of telecommuters in the US increased by 100 percent between 2005 and 2014. Statistical data indicate an accelerating trend toward replacing traditional employment with telecommuting, fueled by important underlying factors:

  • Companies face increasing operational costs. Taxes, employee benefits, energy, rent and other overhead continue to weigh on traditional firms, pressuring them to incorporate telecommuting into their business model. When employees work from home, employers require less floor space, saving money on rent and utility bills.
  • Technology makes telecommuting easy. Although many of the first telecommuters were IT administrators, programmers, and data entry clerks, modern developments including faster residential data connections, cloud computing, video conferencing, Voice over IP telephony enable remote workers to function as though they were physically present in their employer’s offices.
  • Modern workers increasingly value time spent with family, neighbors, and friends, causing them to look for ways to reduce the portion of their lives devoted to daily commutes.
  • Financial and social pressures have pressed many employees to share responsibilities for child and elderly care. Though busy with work, the proximity of telecommuters to those under their care helps them quickly respond to emergencies.
  • As commuters face fluctuating gas prices, increased wear and tear on their automobiles and the liability of driving on congested roadways, the cost of traditional employment continues to rise.
  • Government policies created to encourage special-needs workers to re-enter the workforce.
  • Glowing assessments of homeworking published by major employers and supported by telecommuter testimonials.
  • Today’s workers have a growing desire to maintain a healthy balance between their work and personal lives. Telecommuting gives employees more time at home and greater job satisfaction than they had while commuting to work.

Questions to Ask Before Becoming a Telecommuter

Despite the ongoing transition of workers from office-based to home-based models, telecommuting might not offer the best solution for some employees. Before taking a job based in whole or part on telecommuting, ask yourself some practical questions to understand if the life of a telecommuter will suit you:

Am I happy spending extended periods of time on my own?

You might find yourself working for extended periods without any interaction with your coworkers, so loneliness might affect how well you function as a telecommuter. Before making the decision, you should consider ways you can increase interactions with friends and family members to compensate for the loss of physical interactions in the office.

Am I able to work independently?

Self-starters thrive as telecommuters because they have the internal drive and self-discipline needed to get work done without someone hovering over them. If you have never worked independently or think you don’t have the ability to focus on tasks, ask your boss to schedule a few days for you to work from home as a trial.

Am I self-disciplined and self-motivated?

Just as the regular office environment requires you to sit for extended periods, focused on a particular set of tasks, you must have the ability to make yourself stay at your desk for several hours at a time, without becoming bored, restless, or distracted.

Am I organized enough?

Telecommuters must stay organized, so they can promptly respond to matters under their purview. If you now have an office job, take a look at your desk, your office, and your work habits, and see if your organizational skills need some improvement before you begin working from home.

Can I set boundaries?

With a regular job, you have a set time when the company expects you to leave for the day, but at home, you must create boundaries that separate your work and personal life. For example, telecommuters must assert themselves when employers encroach on family time. Similarly, remote workers must refuse non-emergency demands from household members during working hours.

Can I multitask?

Most experts agree that today's workers must simultaneously manage multiple tasks and projects and seamlessly move between them during the work day. When you try to do too many things at the same time, however, productivity suffers, and nothing you do receives adequate attention. If you feel challenged by multitasking at the office, you will probably feel challenged by multitasking as a telecommuter.

Am I an effective communicator?

Personal and business success depend on good communication skills. If you think you have trouble communicating with clients and coworkers in the regular workplace, you might want to allow time for improvement before assuming the role as a telecommuter. Remote workers need excellent communication skills because they often rely on written forms of communication such as email, chat, and instant messaging. Without the benefit of body language and tone of voice in a conversation, confusion and misunderstandings can quickly develop. Pay attention to the effectiveness of your communication, and rate your abilities.

Is my home conducive to work?

If chaos rules your house during working hours, you probably should consider commuting to work. The sounds of dogs barking, babies crying, children fighting, and televisions blaring might seem normal, but they can easily interfere with your ability to focus on your work. Even if you have the capacity to tune out distractions, your coworkers and clients might consider the atmosphere in which you work as unprofessional.

Will telecommuting help me achieve my desired work-life balance?

Spend some time evaluating whether telecommuting will help you balance your personal and professional lives. Telecommuting might save several hours daily by not driving to work, but household demands might outweigh your job responsibilities, making productive work at home nearly impossible. Furthermore, you might not want to spend more time at home. Don’t become a telecommuter if you think the move will hurt you more than it would help.

After learning about yourself, to see if telecommuting will work for you, you must have an honest conversation with your employer. Both of you need to have a clear understanding of your performance, communication, and other essential facts before you begin telecommuting. By asking some important questions, you can lay the foundation for success:

What equipment will you provide? What equipment must I provide? Will you reimburse me for my out-of-pocket expenses?

In the past, telecommuting required expensive equipment at the company’s location and remote locations. Nowadays, cloud technology, Voice over IP, and fast Internet speeds have eliminated many of those expenses. In many ways, working at home requires the same equipment you would have in your regular office. Still, you need to discuss the necessity of equipment, to make sure you have all the needed tools to do your job. You also need to find out who will pay for those tools and if you are going to reimbursed for any potential expenses.

How will you assess my performance?

If you and your employer never discuss your performance measures, you each might have different ideas about what to expect from you as a telecommuter. Even if your company has established telecommuting policies, you need to understand how your employer will evaluate your work, so no questions will exist about how well you do your job.

How will I communicate and collaborate with your colleagues and manager?

Although technology can enable you to work at home the same way you work in the office, you need to know all the available communications channels and the preferred methods for interacting with your manager and coworkers.

Telecommuting might reduce your visibility to managers and executives at your company, reducing your chances of promotion. Ask your employer what steps you both can take to ensure telecommuting doesn’t sidetrack your career.

How often will I need to commute to the office?

Telecommuters can perform most of their work from their remote location, but some might still occasionally visit the company office for meetings, assessments, or special projects. Ask your employer how frequently you should come to the office, and find out how to make sure you have a workspace ready for you when you get there.

Can I get that in writing?

Before agreeing to work from home, you should negotiate and clarify any issues that concern you. Keep in mind that managers and employees can forget or misunderstand details from meaningful conversations, so make sure you ask for a written, physical document that describes the terms of the telecommuting agreement between you and your employer.

What to Know Before You Start

Spend some time reviewing some essential facts, before deciding to telecommute:

  • Telecommuting doesn’t fit all jobs, sectors, and industries. Many jobs have requirements that make telecommuting either difficult or impossible. For example, jobs that require specialized equipment, physical interactions with coworkers and customers, and paper documents require your presence in the office.
  • Telecommuters save employers money, but they also know that telecommuting saves you money, so they might want you to accept a smaller salary. Some concessions might make the regular commute more economically feasible, so carefully consider the numbers before making a commitment.
  • Telecommuting isn’t perfect. It has limitations and flaws, but so does the traditional employment model. Have realistic expectations, and choose the work setting that most benefits you.
  • You might have a longer work week. Studies show that more than half of all telecommuters work more than 40 hours during the week, compared to only 28 percent of office-bound workers.

Does Telecommuting Kill Creativity?

People who require creativity to do their jobs might worry about possible effects of telecommuting on their work. Research that tries to understand creativity shows that new ideas originate more from surprise, unexpected conversations than from planned meetings.

Additionally, exposure to new information, new people, and new environments enhances creativity. Studies also indicate that group creativity improves when group members do some of their work independently, away from the group.

Neither telecommuters or regular commuters seem to have an advantage regarding creativity. Sitting together in a row of cubicles in a regular office all day has about the same effect on creativity as sitting alone in an office at home.

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In either case, a sedentary lifestyle curtails creativity because people will not encounter new information, have new experiences, or meet new people. Physical activity positively affects creativity, so the most creative people are those who integrate an active lifestyle with work habits that balance independent and group work.

The Cost of Telecommuting

Several cost considerations increasingly favor telecommuting over the traditional work environment. For example, unscheduled absences cost companies about $1,800 per regular employee every year. Telecommuters reduce that cost because they post 63-percent fewer unscheduled absences than their counterparts at the office.

In total, telecommuting can save companies as much as $11,000 per employee per year if employees telecommuted some of the time. Full-time telecommuters can provide companies with an additional $10,000 savings per employee in real estate savings alone.

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Employees also benefit from the lower cost of telecommuting. Studies show a telecommuting workforce in the U.S. could save up to two billion gallons of gasoline every year, making salaries go further and improving standards of living. Still, telecommuting has some hidden costs that everyone should consider:

  • Double taxation: people who live in one state and work in another might discover they owe taxes to two states.
  • Supplies: telecommuters often must pay for the office supplies used in their home office.
  • Equipment: some telecommuters have to buy the office and IT equipment that enables them to work from home.
  • Utilities: while working from home, remote workers must deal with additional costs of lighting, heating, and cooling their homes.

Work-Life Balance

Conflicts between work and family life can cause people to become dissatisfied with both, leading to unhealthy levels of stress. According to researchers from Brigham Young University, traditional workers report feeling a tension between their work and personal lives after working an average of 38 hours during a week.

Telecommuters report fewer problems balancing their personal and professional lives, working as many as 19 hours longer during the week before they feel stressed by the work-life balance. The mere elimination of the daily commute accounts for much of that difference.

Although distractions can affect people who work either in the office or at home, telecommuters have more flexibility to transition between their professional and family roles, as long as they have enough self-discipline to enforce boundaries.

Overall, telecommuters can work faster, more efficiently, and with fewer interruptions than they could at the office. Still, their proximity to their workspace and the technology that makes them accessible can become liabilities that cause them to work too long and blur the distinction between their work and personal life.

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Telecommuting offers many benefits to employers, employees, and the environment, but it doesn’t solve every work-related problem, and it can create complications for life at home. You’ve already asked important questions of yourself and your employer regarding, so you should have a good idea if you will thrive as a telecommuters.

If you have reservations, stick with the regular commute. Don’t risk your career and your well-being by trying to fill a role that doesn’t fit you, but if you think telecommuting will work for you, get started now.