Travails and treasures of telecommuting

Monday, 28 February 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Travelling to a workplace is not the most pleasant experience, in the current Sri Lankan scenario. When the number of vehicles rises and the roads remain same, the obvious realty is increasing congestion. Can we work from home without going to an office? A rising global trend offers interesting insights on this.

Meaning of telecommuting

Telecommuting or telework is considered as working outside the conventional workplace and communicating with it by way of telecommunications or computer-based technology. It constitutes an early form of ‘virtual’ work, which has inspired research disciplines ranging from transportation and urban planning to ethics, law, sociology and organisational studies (Bailey and others, 2002).

Amongst several forms of ‘work-at-home,’ I would use the term ‘telecommuting’ to refer to work carried out at home during regular office hours by employees of organisations.

Global scene

Many employees around the world have replaced their commute to work with electronic links to their workplace. Telecommuting to work is trending upward. A recent survey in PC World magazine indicates that approximately 23% of all employees regularly do their work from some place other than the office.

Although this is an innovative way to complete work, there are significant risks experienced by both the organisation and the employee who is engaged in telecommuting. When a telecommuting experience is unsuccessful there may be a tendency to conclude that the situation was not conducive to telecommuting.

This type of conclusion would tell only a part of the story. An important issue pertains to the suitability of an individual for a telecommuting experience. Thus, it is the confluence of a number of individual and organisational issues that will contribute to the suitability of the telecommuting experience for both individual and organisation.

According to citeman.com website, working from home or telecommuting had gained rapid ground in Bangalore’s software industry. IBM allows employees (project upwards) to work from home. At Accenture all employees in functional areas like human resources (HR), finance, marketing and information technology (IT) can telecommute.

Prudential ICICI has done away with the office convention of a nine to six routine and allows its sales department employees to come in at 11 a.m. and to leave at 8 p.m. At Marico, there is no concept of a fixed number of days of casual leave as long as the job is done. HSBC India has implemented flexi-time policy from February 2008. Other Indian companies that have opted for flex time include Lion Bridge India, YBrant Technologies and KPIT Cummins.

Contributing factors

Certain factors in the last few decades have led toward the reliance on and adoption of telecommunication in the workplace. Many factors contribute to the background, implementation, and advantages of companies executing telecommunication.

One such factor contributing to telecommunication is the recent financial crisis America has faced. Organisations can save money by reducing the amount of work space and other work environment enhancers in its offices. Campbell (2007) makes the point that less money is spent on workstations, maintenance, utility bills, common office space, and insurance.

Organisations may also implement telecommunication in order to retain “geographical freedom” in the ever-changing work environment. Some companies do not have a static geographical base. Instead they rely solely on telecommunication, and mostly engage in internet-based businesses.

Companies can maintain an employee pool worldwide with employees in many time zones, and each person can work at hours convenient for them. Younger generations are more inclined want to telecommute due to their familiarity with technology as well as their desire for autonomy in the workplace. Such organisations that encourage telecommuting have more potential to succeed in the event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or epidemic.

Caine (2009) has suggested that there may be advantages to telecommuting during the traditional height of flu season, not to mention winter blizzards and weather calamities, some experts are advising that businesses prepare for the worst by planning to allow employees to telecommute.

Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the USA, pre-established telework practices at American Express helped ensure that the business could continue functioning. By decentralising the workforce, companies can still maintain operational readiness under almost any situation.

Individual benefits

In addition to corporate advantages and savings, the individual employee can also benefit from telecommuting. Ransom (2010) suggests that thanks to improved technology and the high price of gasoline, working remotely has become an increasingly popular – and less expensive – option for both large and small work forces.

Organisations who support telecommuting to their employees offer the employees’ fiscal savings on the individual employee’s work-related costs, such as work clothing, transportation, lunches out, child care, and other various costs associated with working outside of the home. Stress related to travel to and from work can be nearly eliminated with the use of telecommuting thus producing a happier, more efficient worker.

Telecommuting also offers employees greater opportunity to balance work and personal life. With flexible schedules and mobile technology, employees are no longer tied down to one specific location during the work day in order to accomplish their responsibilities. The increased scheduling flexibility gives the employee the opportunity to provide more care to their family; an absolute necessity for single parents taking care of their children.

Employees also save time by eliminating the commute to and from work. These hours can be used for personal pursuits or as additional hours in the work week, thus creating more efficiency and job satisfaction among employees. With increased trust towards employees, companies can expect to gain a return of trust towards company from telecommuting employees.

Telecommuting is also offered as an employee benefit for companies wishing to retain employees who are either unsatisfied with their work environment or who are looking for another job. Hence, the advantages of telecommuting in the workplace, both for the employee and employer, are plenty. Money, moral, efficiency, crisis-reaction and time are all major factors of implementing telecommuting to the company and individual work-related schedules.

Responsibilities of telecommuting

Organisational leadership has certain responsibilities towards employees who telecommute. Telecommuting employees must also display responsibilities and productivity back towards the company. Ransom (2010) offers companies guidance in managing telecommuting by starting off slow, utilise probationary periods, set expectations, use technology, do not ‘stalk’ employees, and establish performance measurements. Leaders must assign specific responsibility and guidelines to the employee.

Telecommuting may not be offered to every employee. Companies must perform appropriate risk and screening processes prior to implementing telecommunication into an employee’s work schedule. Telecommuting can be offered to a person after trust and responsibility is demonstrated in traditional work environment.

Time synchronisation is also a responsibility of the employer. Companies who primarily telecommute may have many employees in different time zones. These time differences present certain constraints on project deadlines, company meetings, or simply time responses to email conversation. Companies must exercise certain guidance with time synchronisation of telecommuting employees.

Schramm (2010) illustrated the responsibilities of company leadership in that HR professionals are deeply involved in setting policies and procedures, ensuring technical support, providing training and development for off-site workers, and establishing work/life balance guidelines that ensure the success of virtual working. Companies must also be practical with their expectations of employee output of quality of work, not quantity of work.

Employees may be motivated to work more diligently and efficiently during the day when they do not feel the pressure or responsibility of being tied down to their “workspace” from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Furthermore, performance-based results should be valued over number of hours spent behind a desk. Companies display trust in empowerment of employees and increase employee autonomy with work-related tasks and responsibilities when they allow employees to telecommute.

Employee responses to telecommuting

As much as the organisation may task an employee, the decision is left to the employee in their definition of the difference between work and home. Genova (2010) opines that the more situational freedom employees enjoy, the more liability follows their natural proclivity to blend business and personal activities. Employers and employees will have to work together to determine guidelines for work hours and circumstances an employee can be called during non-work hours. The employee may be expected to display an increase of performance with the increased responsibility and independence.

Essentially, the employee and the employer must exhibit trust and responsibility toward one other in telecommuting situations. Although they both have increased responsibility and communication requirements, the employer is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the telecommuting employee.

The employer has to provide the same standards of an office environment to employees at a home workstation. Although the employee has increased autonomy, company leadership must provide appropriate measures in order to maintain employee efficiency and keep employees contributing at a productive rate towards the company.

Relevance to Sri Lanka

Having discussed the fundamentals of telecommuting, how will it be suitable for Sri Lanka? Are we ready for it? Is it gaining momentum as a response to chaotic commuting? The next column of ‘Humane Results’ will address these in detail.

(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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