How telecommuting is transforming the workplace

31 Oct

Telecommuting has become an increasingly common part of the modern office experience.

The traditional office environment is undergoing evolutionary changes. Increasingly, employees are no longer tethered to a specific work space or location, as Internet access across the U.S. and globe has skyrocketed. At the same time, the Great Recession has left an indelible impact on employers and employees in that both are looking to become more agile and lean in their operations. There are numerous examples of companies hiring contractual or freelance employees instead of full- or part-time staff.

One of the ways companies are meeting this demand is through telecommuting. It's a policy that gives employees the chance to work from various locations, including home, off-site client visits and while they are in transit. In fact, Forbes indicated between 30 and 45 percent of workers telecommute, assuming the title of remote or virtual employee. Ignoring the odd connotations of these descriptors, it's a trend that's taken hold and doesn't appear to be going anywhere soon.

Still, human resources managers can't simply make an announcement that everyone can work from home. It requires significant human capital management to ensure that telecommuting pays off for the company and everyone on the payroll. Employers want to ensure their mobile personnel are just as productive at home as they are in the office.

Is it working?
It's hard to ignore the strong message Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sent in eliminating telecommuting from the list of the company's benefits in 2013. Forbes explained this was a logical step for the company that had been seeing a tough string of days. Mayer felt it was necessary to centralize the workforce in a physical location to align everyone with the business culture and mission.

Ravi Gajendran, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois, was inspired by this decision enough to conduct further research to find out whether telecommuting was a boon or burden for employers. Working with David Harrison of the University of Texas at Austin and Kelly Delaney-Klinger of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, Gajendran took a sample of 323 employees and 143 supervisors from multiple companies, Psych Central wrote.

The researchers found that telecommuting workers tend to put forth a greater effort to make themselves and their work stand out. Due to the fact that they aren't a physical presence in the office, they work hard to reassert themselves. At the same time, the study found remote workers feel a sense of obligation to repay their employers for the flexibility and unique work arrangement by working a bit harder.

An interesting highlight of the research is that employees with a poor relationship with their bosses usually perform better while telecommuting. These workers attempt to repay the special treatment provided by their bosses with higher output.

However, when telecommuting is a broad-based policy that everyone can take advantage of, the tendency to see increased performance tends to wane. Why? It's not seen as a privilege. As a result, it's simply another part of the job that merits no special compensation on the part of employees. When employers use telecommuting as a reward given to workers who demonstrate they can handle greater responsibility or leadership, there are stronger performance benefits.

Will the trend continue?
Citing a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management, The New York Times wrote that more employers are planning to provide telecommuting as a benefit to their workers – more than any other type of office perk. Between 2005 and 2012, remote working increased nearly 80 percent, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated.

Will all workers be remote in the next 10 years? It's doubtful that all employees will be able to telecommute. It's a policy that lends itself best to workers whose duties are relegated to computer-based tasks and communications. In fact, the Census survey found the standard virtual employee holds a four-year college degree and works at a company with 100 or more employees. They also earn an average annual salary of $58,000, but the study didn't mention benefits. It's harder to imagine employees working in manufacturing or similar industries telecommuting for any amount of time.

In another way, the telecommuting trend may be influenced by weather. For instance, the massive snow storm that crippled Washington, D.C. last winter could have taken a larger toll on the federal government and agencies. The Times reported telecommuting employees saved the government $32 million that would have been lost if workers weren't allowed to work at home.

When an employer institutes a telecommuting policy, it has to lay the foundation of what it means for the organization. Does it cover those working at home on the nights and weekends after they've spent time in the office? Or are telecommuters only those who work off-site completely? How will human resources effectively keep track of performance and maintain close contact? Employers need to consider these questions before any remote work strategy is put in place.

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