Impact of Telecommuting on Workers, Employers, and Society
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Telecommuting is a growing trend, not only in the United States, but also around the world. This trend towards telecommuting is affecting workers, employees, society, and technological needs and products. As popularity expands, people are becoming increasingly aware of the pros and cons associated with this style of work. Legal concerns regarding telecommuting are coming to the forefront of the employment sector’s attention, as more and more organizations and employees consider the option of the telecommuting. As the number of telecommuter is likely to continue to increase over the coming years, it is important to understand its impact on the various aspects of our lives.
Impact of Telecommuting on Workers, Employers, and Society
Jack Nilles is credited with coining the terms “telecommuting” and “teleworking”, in 1973, during the first documented pilot- telecommuting- project with a major national insurance company (JALA). The terms “telework” and “telecommuting” are often used interchangeably to mean any official work that is being conducted away from an employee’s official duty station and at some alternate work site, regardless of whether that location is a home office or some other form of a telework center. Many prefer the word “telework”, as it appears to be a more accurate description of the concept. The “tele” prefix means “distance,” so the “telework” combination would refer to “work at a distance.” The “telework” advocates also believe that the term “telecommuting” has too strong a connotation about the commuting aspect, and that “telework” is a broader and more inclusive terms (Gordon, 2002). Nevertheless, the more common term “telecommuting” will refer to work completed outside of a traditional office environment.
One distinction important to note would be that telecommuting relates the utilization of technological resources. Many people, erroneously, believe that all telecommuting requires the use of complex technology and equipment; this is not necessarily the case. At times, work may be completed with a telephone, a word- processor, even something as basic as a notepad and pen.
It is important to understand the scope of telecommuting in terms of how many workers are engaging in these types of activities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, has released a report on their website indicating that in May of 2001, some 19.8 million persons usually did work at home as part of their primary job (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). This figure is supported by a report of almost 19.6 million people working at home, according to the International Telework Association and Council (Goodling, 2001). Although the numbers vary, depending upon the source of the research, it is clear that many Americans are currently engaging in some form of telecommuting, although the type and amount of work may vary. In any event, telecommuting is likely to continue to grow over the next several years.
Although the numbers vary, depending upon the source of the research, it is clear that many Americans are currently engaging in some form of telecommuting, although the type and amount of work may vary. In any event, telecommuting is likely to continue to grow over the next several years.
Some of the many advantages for employers of workers who telecommute are obvious on a surface level. These include the following: saving office space and parking, and reducing travel expenses and improving employees’ morale and job satisfaction. Decreased facility costs often translate into an increase in the number of employees a manager can afford to keep on the payroll.
Another advantage is the increased talent pool from which employers can recruit. New communication options “make it possible for employers to avail themselves of a talented pool of qualified workers that isn’t restricted by geographic boundaries” (Grensing-Pophal, 2000). Given the current uncertain job market, some potential employees may be uncomfortable with the idea of relocating for a new job, which they could possibly be laid off or downsized a few months afterward. Telecommuting offers a much safer alternative with a more reasonable level of commitment.
One of the strongest barriers to telecommuting has been employers’ concern about managing remote workers. Many managers are accustomed to communicating face-to-face and are concerned that lines of communication will close when an employee is working off-site. Employers are often uncomfortable with measuring and maintaining successful employee performance with off-site employees; however, some managers “now find they have more time for managing and planning since they are spending less time on day-to-day supervision” (Gordon, 2002). The telecommuters are “more responsible for their own self-management, so the managers are able to spend more time working on the planning, analysis, and other true managerial-level tasks that often get ignored” (Gordon, 2002).
Security of information may also be a concern, as employees may be sending confidential information back and forth to their home office. A simple solution to this problem would be to develop a contract stating that the telecommuter must keep all work-related information confidential no matter where that person is working.
Employers must also be aware of the legalities involved with telecommuting. A controversy erupted two years ago when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a letter last fall, in response to a Texas company’s question, about its responsibility towards telecommuters. The letter suggested that an “obvious and effective means of ensuring employee safety would be periodic safety checks of employee working spaces” by employers (Campbell, 2001). Although OSHA almost immediately retracted this statement, it is clear that the issue is yet unresolved, and that some form of monitoring process may be in the works for home workers (Goodling, 2001).
Successful telecommuting requires that the company have a fair and effective policy on telecommuting, as well as documentation relating to guidelines, training requirements and opportunities, and evaluation processes. Managers may have to provide equipment and support costs for their telecommuting employees. Even with the proper equipment, training, and support, telecommuting may not be successful in every attempt. Managers should keep in mind that this might not be a “good cultural fit” for all of their employees (Solomon, 2000, p. 56-63).
As with employers, many of the advantages for employees who engage in telecommuting are easily identified. Aside from the obvious decrease in commuting time, these include improved morale, increased productivity, and greater flexibility in work schedules. Additionally, many employees find that there are economic advantages to telecommuting. Telecommuters often save money on food, clothing, dry cleaning, parking, fuel costs, and even automobile insurance.
Many employees find that telecommuting allows them to develop a more agreeable balance between work and family, or life. Decreased commuting time, fewer interruptions, and increased productivity often results in some additional discretionary time, which may be spent with family members or engaging in some other rewarding life activity.
Some of the challenges faced by telecommuters include the potential for distractions and concerns about being overlooked for possible promotional opportunities or other career advancements. This may also have limited access to resources that are readily available to their counterparts in a traditional office setting.
Reduced social interactions can lead to feelings of both social and professional isolation. Many workers enjoy the social interaction and camaraderie that arise from working in a traditional office environment and miss these interactions when telecommuting. However, telephone and email communications make it easy to keep in touch with office employees, as well as other telecommuters. Another disadvantage may include finding it difficult to stop working when the workday is finished. Telecommuters “need to be disciplined about shutting it off at the end of the day” as they would if they were in a traditional office environment (Norman, 1999).
As with managers, it is important for employees to recognize that telecommuting is not for everyone (Solomon, 2000, p. 56-63). Telecommuting requires a great deal of independence, responsibility and initiative on the part of the employee. Furthermore, it requires a willing employer who will provide the support and training necessary for the employee to have a successful telecommuting experience.
Telecommuting has implications, not only for individual employers and employees, but also for the general society. Some advantages include a reduction in traffic congestion, and a reduction in the consumption of transportation fuels. With telecommuting, there are also likely to be fewer business interruptions during periods of inclement weather.
Economic advantages are also possible: there may be an increase in job opportunities without geographic constraints, as well as an increase in opportunities for the disabled who may telecommute with ease. Business sectors in the suburbs and rural areas may be better able to compete financially with larger urban areas, as telecommuting residents have more options in choosing where to live and shop (Norman, 1999).
Pertaining to an improved balance between work and family for employees, on a grander scale telecommuting may be “the first social transformation in centuries that pulls working fathers and mothers back into the home rather than pushing them out for longer and longer periods of time” (Norman, 1999). Telecommuting may provide better options for the care of “latch-key kids” and the elderly.
In terms of the overall negative impact of telecommuting on society, concerns have been raised about the loss of face-to-face connections and decreased social interactions. With electronic communications and interactions, moving personal connections farther away would be a concern that basic interpersonal skills may suffer (Norman, 1999).
Another broader effect on society involves the technology sector. While technology is certainly not a required component for telecommuting, it has unquestionably made telecommuting more viable for many employers and employees. Technology and telecommuting have a circular relationship. As technology has improved, so has the opportunity for effective and efficient telecommuting; however, as telecommuting has grown, so has the demand for even more advanced technological options.
According to a study released by Access Markets International Partners, an industry-leading market intelligence consulting firm, “wireless data and internet solutions is expected to skyrocket in the next four years, creating substantial opportunities for wireless device, application, and service providers” (AMI, 2000). In addition, Access Markets International Partners projects that the commercial user base will nearly double, every two years, rising from 3.7 million in 2001 to over 26.4 million in 2006 (AMI, 2000).
Telecommuting is a relatively new concept, especially when one considers that the term was introduced less than thirty years ago. With the evolution of this style of work, many advantages and disadvantages have been brought to the attention of managers, employees, and even the greater society. One thing remains constant, however, when considering all of the effects of telecommuting on the workplace; telecommuting and other alternative work environments are here to stay. There will likely never be a day when all workers engage in telecommuting, and this is simply not feasible. However, as telecommuting becomes more widespread and more employees and employers become comfortable with this option, the numbers of telecommuters are likely to continue to increase. As with most things in life, preparation, planning, and communication are the keys to ensuring a successful telecommuting experience for both managers and employees.
Access Markets International (AMI) Partners, Inc. (2000). Study Forecasts $14 Billion Revenue Opportunity in the U.S. for Wireless Technology Providers.
Campbell, M. (2001). “Who’s Knocking at the Door? At Least For Now It’s Not the Safety Patrol.” http://more.abcnews.go.com/
Goodling, B. (2001). “Regulation Must be Based on Sound Science and Common Sense.”
Gordon, G. (2002). “Telecommuting and Teleworking FAQ’s.” http://www.gilgordon.com/telecommuting/adminfaq/admin01.htm>
Grensing-Pophal, L. (2000). “Employing the Best People — From Afar.” http://www.workforce.com/archive/article/21/98/76.php>
Norman, N. (1999). “Tracking Our Techno-Future: What Are the Social Consequences of Innovation?” http://www.ivc.ca/part43a.htm#social>
Solomon, C. M. (2000). “Don’t Forget Your Telecommuters.” Workforce, 79.5, 56-63.