Managing telecommuting demands policy,
Brad Alge, an assistant professor in Purdue's Krannert Graduate School of Management, whose research is in the changes technology is bringing to organizations, says there is no one authoritative source on the number of telecommuters nationally. He cites a realistic number as "somewhere between 7 million (from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and 20 million (International Telework Association and Council)." A Hewitt Associates study found that 28 percent of large companies allowed employees to telecommute last year, up from 15 percent in 1995. These studies count those who are doing office work at home, not traditionally mobile workers such as sales people.
"Companies have embraced the Internet as a way to recruit, select and retain employees," Alge says. "It is now expanding into organizations' training and development efforts." But management, by and large, hasn't come to terms with telecommuting.
Computers and communication systems are becoming sophisticated and powerful enough that many employees can accomplish just as much in a bathrobe at a desk at home or with a laptop and cell phone at the beach for that matter as at their desk in the office. But for some would-be telecommuters, slow, dial-up computer modems can still be a limiting technological factor.
"Telecommuting is nice to have in a company's human-resource tool set," Alge says. "It's an employee benefit that can make the difference in attracting the best talent, especially in a tight labor market. It helps employees balance work and family life, which is a good investment in the long-term satisfaction of employees."
There are bottom-line benefits to telecommuting from the employer's point of view, according to Alge, in that it's less expensive to provide office space for 10 employees than for 100, and early studies show that telecommuters' productivity tends to improve.
So why haven't more companies adopted telecommuting? "It's still a difficult sell to management," Alge says. "Telecommuting demands that management examine how the policies it institutes affect employees."
For some workers, telecommuting obviously just won't work. "You can't have employees manufacture widgits on an assembly line at home," Alge says.
Telecommuting does work for knowledge workers. It can be the perfect arrangement for occupations such as computer programming, accounting, editing and some clerical work.
A key question for management to address is who gets to telecommute and who doesn't. "What are the selection mechanisms?" Alge asks. "Telecommuters have to be disciplined self-starters. Not everyone is cut out to telecommute. There is also an equity issue. Employees not chosen to telecommute may harbor resentments, which can undermine a company's telecommunication efforts."
Alge cautions management not to scrimp on telecommuters' home office set-ups. "You have to invest in powerful computers, high-speed modems and even set up a technical help line so telecommuters can get quick solutions to computer problems."
Employers also have to take a new approach to employee evaluation when they can't see their employees working in the office. "Evaluation has to be based more on results objective, numerical and quantifiable evaluation systems for assessing employee performance," Alge says.
Beyond developing telecommuting policies, employers have to deal with deeper issues of employees' adopting an organization's values and culture when they're not spending five days a week in the office, according to Alge.
"How does not interacting with co-workers every day affect the organization?" Alge asks. This brings up the question of how many days a week employees are allowed to telecommute. In order for telecommuters to identify with and commit to the goals of a company, regular meetings and even social events become more important in the collective life of the organization, Alge says.
One of the biggest barriers to telecommuting is employers' attitudes. "Every new technology brings resistance," Alge says. "You have to have user acceptance before there can be successful implementation." The acceptance of telecommuting demands a major adjustment: redefining work so that it connotes more of what an employee does and less about where he or she does it.
Finally, though, success, even in an increasingly wired world, comes down to an organization's employees. "People do make the place," Alge says. "Employees especially high-tech, knowledge employees have more power with a free-agent mentality, so employers have more incentive to keep them happy."
And telecommuting is one way to do that.
Source: Brad Alge, (765) 494-4483, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kiya A. Smith (765) 494-2604, email@example.com
Writer: Mike Lillich, (765) 494-2077, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com
Kiya A. Smith, an administrative assistant in Purdue University's Graduate School, for more than a year has been part of a telecommuting pilot project, which allows her to work at home two to three days a week. "I've worked at Purdue for 22 years and never dreamed I could have this kind of work-life arrangement. I am more productive, and it is a great morale booster." (News Service Photo by David Umberger)