Given the ever increasing demands for business expansion, international partnerships and cooperation, today commuting not only stands for the action of getting to and from work, but also implies the extensive travel employees have to undertake to meet with remotely located team members, colleagues, and business partners. While commuting can be very time inefficient and costly, the rapid development of mobile technology provides a solution.
The term ‘telecommuting’ refers to employees using modern technologies to work outside their office, let it be their home or any other location, either regularly or from time to time. A recent survey conducted by global market research company Ipsos shows that, as of the year 2011, one in five (17%) employees with online access are telecommuting, and another 34% would very likely take the opportunity, if provided. Hence, telecommuters are quickly becoming a norm in modern workplaces.
Interestingly, the Ipsos survey results showed that telecommuting is most widely spread in emerging markets, as employees in the Middle East and Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific are considerably more involved in frequent telecommuting than those in North America and Europe. More specifically, the top five countries pursuing telecommuting employment are India (56%), Indonesia (34%), Mexico (30%), Argentina (29%), and South Africa (28%), while it is least popular in Hungary (3%), Germany (5%), Sweden (6%), France (7%), and Italy (7%). To explain this pattern, we could assume that emerging markets are more in favor of telecommuting due to the rapidly changing, developing, and hence, unsettled work environments. For example, establishing a subsidiary in an emerging market might require a lot of involvement from head office, some of which could be addressed through telecommuting as an alternative to frequent business travel (see also my previous post on virtual assignments here) .
The survey also revealed some perceived benefits and hesitations in regards to this type of employment. The majority of respondents globally agreed that telecommuting helps to keep women in the workplace alongside raising children, as well as generally decreases employees’ stress levels due to avoiding times in transit between home and work. As for the drawbacks, 62% of survey respondents agreed that telecommuting produces a feeling of social isolation. About half of the respondents also found that telecommuting hinders promotions, and creates family conflicts.
While from the employee’s perspective telecommuting is primarily a question of workplace flexibility and hence work-life balance, employers are more concerned with whether telecommuting affects the productivity of employees. Addressing this question, a recent article in the Telegraph refers to a relevant experiment undertaken by Telefonica UK’s O2 division. Specifically, O2 ran an experiment where the majority of employees from a head-office worked from home on the same day. According to staff experience, both productivity and work/life balance benefited from this approach. Similar conclusions can be drawn from the Ipsos survey, which reports that two thirds (65%) of respondents find that flexibility of telework increases productivity, and 78% agree that it helps to achieve work-life balance. Hence, employees generally report a high degree of satisfaction with telecommuting.
Following up on this topic, another Telegraph article discusses mobile working solely from a business perspective. Similar to employees’ perceptions, business leaders highlight the usefulness of mobile technology, as it allows for work flexibility, decreases periods of inactivity, and generally increases business efficiency. Moreover, for business leaders telecommuting is frequently a matter of cost, as it allows savings from establishing and maintaining working places and facilities. Naturally, telecommuting also has downsides for employers. Managers should ensure that “always-on technology” does not translate into “always-on employees,” as it can eventually lead to employee burnout. At the same time, encouraging remote employees to self-manage themselves implies high levels of trust in their work ethics, and requires implementation of modern technological solutions for maintaining regular communication with them. Last but not least, the matter of data security is brought up, as keeping the business mobile enhances the threat of losing or revealing some of the company’s confidential information.
As it shows, while the benefits of telecommuting can be vast both for employees and employers, there are also several drawbacks, which should be continuously managed. The reality of a company with telecommuting employees is that managers need to learn to lead virtual teams and display the same levels of professional conduct and efficiency as managers that regularly meet their subordinates in the office with all the comfort of face-to-face communication. Next week’s article will look at the more specific managerial implications for helping companies to manage their remote employees and keep them engaged, even though they are physically dispersed.