What is telecommuting?

Recent advances in technology, particularly the internet, have seen some profound changes occur in business operations and in the way people work. Telecommuting is just one example of this and is now a real possibility for many workers.

A few years ago a discussion with one of our senior Word Processing Operators changed life in the office as we knew it. She was aware that as a network manager I spent considerable time working on the computer system remotely, from the comfort of my living room. (What she was unaware of was that this was generally in the dead of night to fix problems before they festered into full-blown disasters by morning … but that’s another story.) She was planning to have a baby and didn’t necessarily want to give up full-time work, although she still wanted to spend those first formative years at home with her child. Why couldn’t she too work from home? Why indeed?

This conversation set into motion a chain of events that would eventually see seven of the firm’s Word Processing Operators working full time from home or telecommuting.

Put simply, telecommuting or telework is work performed outside the traditional office setting utilizing telecommunications technology, usually from a home office, a client site, or a telecommuting center.

There are of course some challenges for a company adopting telecommuting including the need to invest in technical infrastructure and technical staff, and overcoming resistance to change.

One of the prime challenges is overcoming management resistance, as it “runs counter to the prevailing industrial-based management culture”. The major management fear is loss of control and lack of trust. Resistance to change, when it affects ingrained attitudes and habits can be difficult to resolve. However, it is not only management that voices its concern, in some instances, but it is also actually the employees themselves who put up the resistance. For this reason, it is essential that telecommuting be voluntary.

Not surprisingly then, one of our biggest hurdles had nothing to do with technical matters, but rather to do with overcoming the skepticism and mistrust of the partners and other employees not involved in the program. How would the lawyers know their staff was working and not just being paid to babysit or hang out with their toddlers watching the Wiggles?

For a successful telecommuting program, senior-level management buy-in and sponsorship are essential. In order to do this, we set up a small pilot program involving three operators who would work in the office but would use the remote dial-in facilities instead of a direct network connection. To all intents and purposes, they would be telecommuting. The staff selected for our pilot program were all volunteers who were long-term, trusted employees of the firm. They were also very proficient at their jobs. Because of this, and the very real possibility of one of them leaving if they couldn’t eventually work from home, their supervisors agreed to and supported the pilot.

Interestingly, where we did encounter problems were with their peers – with those operators who remained in the office and were skeptical about the “favorable treatment” being shown to their workmates. This was eventually overcome by setting the minimum level of dictation to be transcribed per day by the telecommuters at a slightly higher rate than that required by those in the office. The rationale for this being that without the travel time and the usual interruptions that occur in the office, this would easily be achievable.

In order to provide a benchmark for assessment a sample period of three months transcription was taken and averaged for each operator prior to commencing the pilot. This figure was rated against transcription hours recorded during the telecommuting period to determine productivity fluctuations and the level of success of the project.

The end results were amazing. Of the three operators chosen for the pilot, two achieved productivity increases of around 50% over what was being produced by the on-site operators, and the other a phenomenal 70%.

The pilot also enabled technical staff to monitor and assess problems with connectivity and for these to be resolved on-site where diagnosis and resolution is considerably easier.

In order to determine the level of user satisfaction and to give the telecommuters an opportunity to raise any concerns, focus group discussions were held regularly in the first few months after the project went life, and issues arising from these discussions were dealt with quickly.

It is well documented that social isolation can be a major drawback for telecommuters, which raises the question as to whether there are certain personalities more suited to this style of work.

Telecommuting seems best suited to those who are self-disciplined and capable of self-management. “Workaholics” may find it difficult to switch off at home, and may actually benefit more from being in the office. Others need the camaraderie of the workplace and may feel isolated at home, whilst it suits those who are easily distracted in the office.

Another factor may also be age. Younger people who view work as a chance to socialize may not enjoy telecommuting, whereas older people in established relationships may. One of our “pilot” operators was a mother with two small children, the other a mother-to-be. The third was a loner who preferred the company of her great dane to that of her workmates. All were therefore motivated by a desire to spend less time in the office and as a result, suffered no ill effects.

A survey of our remote operators conducted 18 months after the project went live determined that the most negative aspect of telecommuting was keeping skill levels up to date. This has since been addressed with a training program designed specifically for remote operators which are run every six months. The final question on the survey was: “Would you consider returning to work in the office full time?” The response? A resounding “no”!

The benefits of telecommuting became apparent fairly quickly to both the firm and the telecommuters, with the most significant for the firm being:

• Retention of staff – staff who are given the opportunity to work from home, are more likely to remain in employment with the company longer. This allows for substantial savings in recruitment and training costs.

• Savings in the cost of office space – remote worker doesn’t need office space in the corporate headquarters.

On this note, one of the final benefits of the project will be leveraged shortly when a premises assessment is carried out. This assessment will forecast future space requirements, and it is anticipated that with a substantial proportion of the administrative workforce off-site, considerable savings in CBD real estate will materialize.

• Significant productivity increases.

• Reduced sick leave.

Benefits to employees include:

It’s family-friendly – telecommuting has allowed employees to set their own working hours, and spend more time with their families.

Health and well-being increase as a result.

There is less commuting – with employees living in outlying areas saving up to 4 hours per day in travel.

The most valuable lessons learned during the project were that:

Managers need to be behind the project 100% if it is to succeed. Managers often feel threatened by telecommuting in that they are unable to physically monitor what employees do, so trust becomes a vital issue.

Telecommuting must also be voluntary – no employee should be forced into the arrangement. Employees who are right behind the project and have a vested interest in making it work will indeed make it work.

Whilst telecommuting may be seen as an ideal way to combine child care with work, research does suggest that it may actually place an unrealistic burden on women to meet the expectations required by work, whilst simultaneously dealing with children. Our telecommuting mothers do not rely solely on their presence in the home to supervise children whilst working. They still find that occasional care is required if they work during normal business hours, however, most now choose to work out of normal business hours, after their children are asleep. In any event, the reduction in travel time has meant more time to spend with the family.

Guidelines for Implementing Telecommuting

(a) Planning

Obtain a top-level champion for the project. Support from senior management is essential.

Determine what technical infrastructure will be required and prepare a budget. There are numerous solutions available today which vary in price depending on the number of users connecting and the security required.

Set up a small pilot program in-house. Have potential telecommuters “work from home” in the office. Setting aside a separate office, or utilizing space in a regional site is a good way to do this, and it provides the opportunity to iron out any problems on-site first, as remote access problems are notoriously difficult to resolve once workers are off-site.

Bear in mind though that the vagaries of the telecommunications networks mean that what works in the office doesn’t necessarily function the same once a worker is at home. However, what the trial does provide you with is a competent user who is able to tell you precisely what the problems are if things do go wrong, not someone who still can’t tell whether or not the modem is properly connected or even switched on.

(b) Start an awareness campaign

After proof of concept is established, start a wide-ranging awareness campaign. This can include making information available on an intranet site, through the staff newsletter, and in management and partnership meetings. Information should include:

• How to set up a home office ergonomically;

• A policy on working hours;

• Firm policy on telecommuting; and

• Some myths and legends of telecommuting.

(c) Training

A comprehensive Training Program is essential, and should include:

• Explanation of the policies and procedures;
• The importance of ergonomics;
• Equipment familiarisation (connecting the computer, printer, etc);
• Establishing a connection and logging onto the network;
• Common problems – frequently asked questions; and
• A User Guide and Troubleshooting manual.

(e) Technical Support

Technical Support is an extremely important issue for telecommuters. It is exceptionally frustrating being trapped at home unable to access the network, and unable to obtain help. For this reason, the firm provides a range of support options including on-call 24 x 7 help desk facilities.

(f) Policies

Various firm policies, guidelines, and procedural documents were examined and modified to include the new telecommuting arrangements, and two additional documents were prepared for the project, the Telecommuting Policy, and the Telecommuting Agreement. The Telecommuting Policy sets out the firm’s guidelines and requirements for working remotely and the Telecommuting Agreement sets out the obligations of both the firm and the employee.

Workers Compensation laws in various states also need to be clarified. For instance, The Australian Workers Compensation Act, 1987 also covers telecommuters, and interestingly, our HR Manager expected a potential decrease in workers’ compensation claims as most work-related injuries usually occur in transit, to and from work, and not in the office.

Finally, telecommuting has provided the firm with very real increases in productivity, and the opportunity to retain valuable long-term staff, along with tangible cost savings which will materialize when the requirement for expensive CBD real estate is substantially reduced by having workers at home. In short, utilizing technology in this instance has provided genuine benefits for both the firm and its employees alike.

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