Technicalities of telecommuting: Relevance to Sri Lanka

Monday, 7 March 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We looked at the globally growing practice of telecommuting in our last column. We identified it as work carried out at home during regular office hours by employees of organisations. Let us continue the discussion by focusing on critical success factors for telecommuting and then see their presence in Sri Lanka.

Critical success factors for telecommuting

A clear look at an institution and its individuals will provide a gross yardstick for considering the potential for the implementation of telecommuting. Two most important factors can be identified, in this context.

They are: Institutional and Individual Capacity (OIC) for telecommuting, and the Amenability of the Work (WA) to telecommuting. Amenability is usually referred to as the flexible nature of work which allows it to be handled by employees in optional ways.

Based on the ongoing research work by Professor Michel Buckley of University of Oklahoma and myself, few scenarios can be proposed. Figure 1 shows us four such different scenarios that can occur in this context.

If the OIC and the WA are both high, then the situation appears to be a good fit for telecommuting. In a situation where OIC is high and WA is low, there appears to be a situation in which there is a poor level of fit between the workforce and the work.

If OIC is low but the WA is high, telecommuting may be possible if an organisation makes an attempt to upgrade both technology and the level of personnel employed by the organisation. If WA and OIC are both low, then it can be concluded that telecommuting is a poor fit in this situation. It must be stated that this is an initial evaluation. There are myriad other factors which influence this decision.

Industry scenarios

Based on the typology described above, several industry scenarios can be considered. Let’s look at a typical Western situation first, and then reflect on Sri Lanka.

Scenario 1: Telecommuting misfit (OIC – low, WA – low)

Mary is front office assistant of a bank in the USA, and her work involves direct contact with customers. She explored the possibility of working from home, but was not an option due to the nature of her work.

This is the case with regard to most banks in Sri Lanka, where physical presence of employees on a daily basis is the norm. It can be extended to many other industries as well.

Scenario 2: Work constraints

(OIC – high, WA – low)

Peter is a creative writer in an advertising firm in France. His company is flexible in allowing him to work from home. However, he has to visit clients and need to attend regular meetings in others’ offices. Hence, there is a challenge for him to fully resort to telecommuting.

A similar case may prevail with many advertising firms in Sri Lanka. Also, a variety of jobs in the ICT industry also may witness such situations.

Scenario 3: Capacity constraints (OIC – low, WA – high)

Alex is an entrepreneurial CEO of a trading organisation in the UK. He has a dozen of marketing executives who used to work in a large office. With the dismal performance of last year, he is under pressure from the board of directors for more stringent cost control.

However, he has financial issues in dealing with infrastructure requirements such as computer availability with internet connectivity for his employees. Thus, even though the team is very much willing, the support for telecommuting does not exist here.

This is also not very uncommon in Sri Lanka, with its increasing IT literacy rate. Shortcomings in the necessary infrastructure can hinder the cost-effective utilisation of available talent.

Scenario 4: Telecommuting fit

(OIC – high, WA – high)

Joel is a systems analyst and enjoys working late night in Germany. He need not got to office, thanks to the flexible arrangement offered by his firm. With the internet connectivity, he shares his programmes with the office and is in touch.

He has access to company servers located in different locations and there is no need to be physically present at meetings in the office. He uses web2 tools to be in touch with his clients and colleagues. This position is very much amenable to telecommuting.

We can find a variety of such opportunities in Sri Lanka. ICT industry can be stated as the forerunner in this approach. With an able set of software developers and having projects that have components that can be handled in a flexible manner, telecommuting becomes possible. Yet, the effectiveness of such a practice relies on several job and family related factors.

Further research insights on telecommuting

Among the variety of literature, job related factors and family-related factors influencing the individual desire to telecommute can be found. Focusing on job related aspects, it can be seen that, job characteristics, than the general job traits, are more likely to determine whether a specific individual can telecommute (Mokhtarian, 1998).

Further, perceptions of job suitability based on intimate knowledge of specific jobs, rather than global job categories, may better predict who can telecommute (Bailey et al, 2002).

With respect to family related factors, maintaining a healthy work-family balance (e.g. Shamir and Salamon, 1985) has been identified as a factor influencing an individual’s choice for telecommuting. A study involving public sector employees in Germany found that lower family-work conflict as a psychological influencer for home-based telecommuting (Hornung, 2009).

A job involving the mode of telecommuting was found to attract candidates who seek a higher work/life balance and thereby influence the job choice (Thompson, 2009). Male professionals and female clerical workers were identified as predominate categories who opt for telecommuting (Bailey et al, 2002).

Employees themselves expect greater autonomy and flexibility that could lead to better balancing private and professional duties (Tuskin and Devos, 2005). Considering the marital status of employees and their age, no clear pattern could be seen with regard to their preference or engagement in telecommuting, owing to contradictory findings (Venkatesh and Vitalari, 1992).

A study based on samples of more than 500 workers in public agencies in the US, reflected that work-related factors are most predictive of an individual’s choice to work remotely (Mannering & Mokhtarian, 1997).

As they reported, these factors include manager’s willingness, workplace interaction, and self-perceived job suitability, in addition to a number of personal and household attributes such as lack of personal discipline, household distractions, and preference to work with a team, family orientation, and workaholism.

Specific relevance to Sri Lanka

Based on the above discussion, there is an opportunity for Sri Lankan organisations to explore the prospects of telecommuting. As the typology clearly showed us, it is not the panacea for all corporate illnesses.

Careful selection of specific tasks that can be handled through telecommuting, as well as ensuring the availability of necessary infrastructure, are critical steps in this direction. Comprehensive studies with respect to Sri Lankan industries need to be done to explore further opportunities.

As the way the rest of the world is benefiting from the practice of telecommuting, Sri Lanka can also utilise its strengths, in the process of its ongoing economic expansion.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a Senior Faculty Member and a Management Consultant attached to the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He also serves as an adjunct faculty in International Human Resource Management at the Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA. He has over two decades of both private and public sector working experience in diverse environments including Unilever and Nestlé. He has engaged in consultancies in more than 10 countries. He is a Commonwealth AMDISA Doctoral Fellow and Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow. He holds a Ph.D. and an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura and a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Moratuwa. He is also a member of the Chartered Management Institute, UK.)

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