Cultural Change, Technological Advances Aid Telework

By Eytan Hirsch Jun 11, 2012
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​Telework among full-time employees has almost doubled since 2002, according to a nationwide May 2012 report by The Conference Board.

Experts said the increase reflects a profound shift in the nature of work itself, as advanced technologies allow many to get their jobs done from a variety of settings and locations. A rise in employee demand for flexibility and alternative work arrangements has played a major role as well.

“A confluence of factors, led by the rapid expanse of sophisticated, secure and relatively inexpensive communication technologies, has sparked a quiet revolution in where and how many Americans do their jobs,” said Amy Lui Abel, director of human capital research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report. It states that 1.2 percent of full-time employees worked primarily from home in 2002 compared to 2.1 percent in 2010.

Benefits and Advantages

Telework reduces commuting costs and increases productivity, simply because employees who spend less time driving or commuting via bus or train can spend that time working, the study points out.

Another value of telework is that it can lead to a greater level of employee satisfaction. Flexible scheduling can help teleworkers avoid family/work conflicts, experts said. In addition, working from home can lead to fewer workplace distractions and less office politics. Without the physical constraint of working in a conventional workplace, teleworkers likely feel greater autonomy over how their work is done.

According to a survey on workplace flexibility by WorldatWork, telework and flexible work schedules are associated with higher job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty, along with lower turnover and absenteeism.

Problems and Disadvantages

Despite the many advantages that telework can offer, it is not necessarily the best decision for some workers and their organizations. “Sometimes employees may find that they are not as happy as they thought they could be or would be as a teleworker,” Abel said.“I think often employees underestimate what they get when they come into an office.”

In addition to risking resentment from colleagues who are in the office daily, teleworkers might not be able to contribute to day-to-day decisions or larger strategic plans. They might miss opportunities to contribute to organizational change, too.

“There’s a lot of data that gets passed around just by word of mouth while standing by the water cooler,” Abel said.“Sometimes I think employees miss that and feel like they lack that in some way.”

Another disadvantage is that teleworkers might never turn off the technology they use for work and consequently will struggle to set boundaries between their jobs and their personal time, leading to an unhealthy level of working. The opposite is possible as well. Lack of a structured workday might lead to distractions at home and cause telecommuters to slack off when they should be working.

Keys to Success

Abel said teleworkers should try to maintain a basic routine that is similar to what they would normally be doing in the office, particularly when it comes to time management.

“There’s a very independent role that is required,” she said. “Being a self-starter and having the discipline and motivation to manage your time and your own projects is very critical.”

Some individuals might not have the right type of personality to work independently and continue to be just as productive as they would be in the workplace.

Experts said it is critical that managers and employees go over expectations, technological issues and logistical matters if they want to make telework successful.

Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report, said teleworkers should receive guidance, training and support to help them develop an understanding of the value of teleworking and learn how to trust their employees from a different perspective.​

“With support from HR, managers at all levels must make the ‘mental shift’ to trusting that employees are getting the job done without seeing them every day—and to have the strength to act decisively when they’re not,” Levanon said.

He said that managers should be able to easily monitor their workers for teleworking to be effective and encourage them to make a plan with milestones and achievable goals.

“I think teleworking works better when deliverables are observable and very well-quantified,” Levanon said. As long as employees consistently meet objectives, managers will be content with not seeing them on a day-to-day basis, knowing that the results are still being produced, he said.

Eytan Hirsch is a staff writer for SHRM.

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