Defining Telecommuting

Telecommuting has revolutionized the way many people work. Rather than spend time in traffic, going to and from work, employees can now work from home, using broadband Internet connections to connect computers and phones to company data networks. Thanks to technology, people can work from home or other remote locations as efficiently as if they were in the office.

Although telecommuting describes people who work for an employer from remote locations, the term does not include those who work during official travel, such as mobile sales people. Instead, telecommuting includes those who work during regular, paid hours from home or a telework center. Other terms used to describe telecommuting include the terms "telework", "flexible workplace", "e-commuting", "e-work", "work from home", and "working at home."

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Many businesses and industries have adopted telecommuting as a way to attract quality talent, reduce company environmental footprints, and to access a global workforce. Thanks to increasingly fast and reliable Internet connections, teleconferencing, and Voice over IP Communications, most businesses can plan to expand their use of telecommuters well into the future.

In the past, distance and commuting time has separated companies from workers who live too far away to commute. Additionally, employees increasingly value their time, so they would rather spend it with their family than alone on a highway in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Technology has made telecommuting possible for many more workers than anyone previously could have expected.

Types of Telecommuting

Modern telecommuting can take one or more of many different forms:

  • In ad hoc distance networks, regular employees work during the evening or on weekends.
  • Flexible work schedules allow individuals the option of telecommuting from home on a regular basis, during normal working hours.
  • Flexible organizations have official policies that permit or encourage team members to telecommute to their job.

Different configurations enable telecommuting, and serve to make remote workers and their employers more accessible:

  • Home-based telecommuting that allows employees to work from their home and connect to their employer’s networks according to established scheduling.
  • Telecenters provide central facilities for telecommuters. Rather than using their employer’s offices, telecommuters utilize telecenters to take advantage of faster Internet equipment and advanced networking and communications equipment.
  • Mobile telecommuting engages professionals who hold jobs that require travel. These mobile workers can use mobile hotspots, cell phones, and other technology to stay in contact with their home office.
  • Networked telecommuting enables dispersed teams to collaborate without regard to hierarchy.

A Short History of Telecommuting

The idea of telecommuting began when Jack Niles coined the term in 1972. Niles’ conducted research that investigated the feasibility of using technology, rather than roads to get people to work. Although Niles conceived of telecommuting as a means of energy conservation, modern techniques and lifestyles have added to the scope of its purpose.

Niles' pioneering studies led him in 1973 and 1974 to conduct the first tests of telecommuting. His work helped convince the world of telecommuting as an alternative to traditional commuting. The next step leading to the general acceptance of telecommuting came from Congress, rather than an individual.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 and subsequent amendments created the National Telework Initiative, a government-sponsored effort designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ozone levels at ground level. Thanks to this initiative, companies accelerated the development of technology designed to enable telecommuting.

Nowadays, telecommuting has become a permanent part of the employment landscape, saving fuel and the environment, and improving the quality of life for workers in developed nations around the world.

Telecommuting by the Numbers

Trends and statistics reveal much about the modern telecommuter. A typical telecommuter graduated college, earns close to $60,000 annually and works for a company that employs more than 100 people. Men and women have an equal likelihood of working as a telecommuter within the applicable demographics.

According to the American Time Use Survey, which was released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23 percent of employees worked from home either part-time or full-time in 2014. Conversely, 85 percent of employees did some or all of their work at their workplace. About 40 percent of U.S. firms have a telecommuting policy, giving place to more than three million workers (about 2.6 percent of the U.S. workforce) by 2014.

Between 2005 and 2014, telecommuting increased by 100 percent, according to statistics from the American Community Survey. The acceptance of telecommuting should accelerate even faster as technology continues to improve and companies design workflows to accommodate telecommuters. 3.7 million employees (2.5% of the workforce) in the United States now work from home at least half the time. In the U.K., telecommuting has increased by nearly one-third during the previous decade.

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Technology contributing to the acceleration of telecommuting includes the increased availability of laptops, tablets, smartphones, making remote workers as productive as their office-bound counterparts. Meanwhile, signs indicate that telecommuting appeals to workers. Studies show that almost 80 percent of employees want to work from home for at least part of their work week.

Although telecommuting gives workers more time at home with their families and friends, the practice also benefits employers. Surveys reveal that more than half of all telecommuters work for their companies for more than 40 hours, compared to only 28 percent of ordinary workers. A formal experiment performed by Nicholas Bloom revealed that telecommuters worked almost 10 percent longer than regular workers and produced 13 percent more than workers who drove to the office every day.

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Robust mobile computing power and improved Internet connectivity have boosted telecommuting in computing-intensive jobs in fields such as science and engineering. As employers increasingly embrace telecommuting as part of their commitment to their employees and the environment, the modern workplace evolves. Rather than having specific offices or cubicles assigned to a particular worker, companies now design community workspaces that telecommuters share when they come to the office. The compatibility of telecommuting with smaller office spaces reduces the environmental footprint of businesses while reducing their overhead expenses.

Advantages of Telecommuting

Telecommuting has much to offer employees, employers, and the environment:

Reduced or eliminated commuting

Workers traditionally pay for their commuting expenses out of their net income. Additionally, commuters can spend several hours of every work day driving and sitting in traffic. When employees telecommute, the money formerly spent on fuel and fares for the daily commute means more money in the bank and more time to spend with families, friends, hobbies, and other personal activities.

Increased independence

Workers who telecommute have more flexibility during the day, making them available to tend to family emergencies, medical appointments, youth sports, and other family-related activities. Although employers of telecommuters often need to adjust their workflows to accommodate telecommuters, doing so improves employee retention and productivity, enabling firms to become more efficient and competitive.

Fewer sick days

Conventional employees need sick days, so they can stay home and rest rather than risk infecting others in the workplace with communicable diseases. Also, telecommuters often work in closer proximity to their health care providers, reducing the amount of productive time lost to medical appointments.

Safer neighborhoods

Telecommuting lets people stay in their homes during the day, creating a deterrent to crime in areas formerly left vacant during the day.

Improved mental and physical health

Traffic, work schedules, and the competing demands of work and family have created a stressed-out workforce where road rage, workplace shootings, anxiety, and depression have sapped productivity and increased health care costs. Telecommuting helps people avoid the stress of the daily commute so that they can live healthy, balanced lives.

A better environment

Telecommuting reduces the number of cars on the road and the number of hours cars burn fuel. By reducing carbon dioxide emissions and ozone in our cities, telecommuting makes the world better for everyone.

Improved productivity

By reducing or eliminating the daily commute, companies benefit from happy workers who produce more and have more creativity and loyalty than their stressed-out counterparts at the office. Additionally, businesses that embrace telecommuting require less office space than traditional companies, giving them a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Disadvantages of Telecommuting

Although the increased use of telecommuting offers many significant benefits, some obstacles exist that workers and employers must address:

Reduced social interaction

Telecommuters lack the face-to-face social interaction and physical activity associated with the traditional workplace. These limitations might lead to a new wave of mental and physical health issues.

Lack of team identity

Comradery and esprit de corps help companies and their employees bond, creating a shared identity that can lead to improved productivity and creativity in the workplace as well as improved employee retention. A telecommuting workforce might lose essential human elements that characterize a successful business enterprise.

Blurred boundaries

As workers transition from the traditional workplace to the work-from-home model, employees might develop difficulties balancing work and personal lives. Telecommuters need to have enough self-discipline to maintain well-defined schedules that will prevent work from overtaking their family life and vice versa.

Difficulty in demonstrating workload

Supervisors and managers can monitor regular employees and recognize when a worker has too much to do, or does not follow proper procedures. Telecommuters have no such oversight. Instead, remote workers must proactively communicate with their employer about their workload and hope their organization will constructively respond to their concerns.

Self - motivation and self-discipline

The absence of supervision can create difficult circumstances for telecommuters with poorly developed senses of self-motivation and discipline. Telecommuters must get out of bed and perform their duties in ways similar to ordinary workers.

Career advancement

A lack of face time with managers and supervisors might cause problems for career minded telecommuters who want to advance to higher positions within their company. Employers might subconsciously give priority to employees with whom they physically interact on a regular basis.

Lack of real-time and nonverbal feedback

Telecommuters often do not have the benefit of receiving performance feedback in real time, as they perform their duties throughout the day. Also, they work without non-verbal feedback, the verbal cues that can tell them if they have pleased or angered their supervisors or coworkers.

Time management skills

People have varying degrees of time management skills that allow them to accomplish their work. In many settings, telecommuters must evaluate and improve their time management skills without support from their employer.

Perception of friends and family

Family members and friends with regular jobs might tend to regard home-based workers unfavorably. Also, family members who commute to work might expect their telecommuter counterparts to perform more housework and errands, thinking that someone who stays home all the time can do more during the day.

Myths about Telecommuting

Many misconceptions, in addition to real advantages and disadvantages, add to the way people think about telecommuting. Employers and employees must consciously avoid prejudices and myths as they consider whether telecommuting will help them.

For example, some people who have never telecommuted might believe they will become lonely as a telecommuter. In reality, telecommuters interact with their teams via email, instant messaging, voice calls, conference calls, and teleconferencing, and often have more time to spend with family members and friends.

Beliefs that telecommuters never get dressed and ready for work create a stereotype of a lazy worker, flopping on the sofa, watching television. In practice, telecommuters awaken early, dress professionally, and treat their home office as their place of professional employment. As in the traditional office environment, telecommuters who do not seriously handle their jobs will ultimately fail.

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The myth that telecommuters have an abundance of free time might also adversely impact the decision to work from home. For example, spouses and partners might expect a telecommuter in their relationship to run more errands and perform more household chores, only because that person stays home during working hours.

In reality, telecommuters have full-time jobs that require at least as much attention as a regular office job, so they don’t have time for any more personal tasks during the day as their office-bound cohorts.

The thought of receiving a lower salary as a telecommuter might dissuade some people from becoming a remote worker. In practice, however, telecommuters can earn the same salary by working from home than they did when they worked in a traditional office setting.

Although telecommuting reduces the cost of employment to workers, it also benefits employers through reduced overhead, making it a win-win decision for companies and their employees.

Additionally, myths about productivity and the ability of individuals to brainstorm have the potential to block progress toward the full acceptance of telecommuting on corporate, personal, and societal levels. In practice, telecommuters don’t have to brainstorm by themselves, neither do they work alone.

Telecommuters have regular schedules, remain accessible to their supervisors, managers, and teams throughout the day, and carry workloads that require sustained productivity. Remote workers use technology to interact with their teams as if physically present, meaning they can participate in brainstorming, planning, and any other work-related activity.

Finally, some companies and workers fail to consider telecommuting because they think that only IT and data entry jobs can work under that model. In reality, telecommuters can perform almost any office job at home using surprisingly affordable services and equipment giving businesses, workers, and the world a bright, prosperous future.