Telecommuting revolution may increase productivity

Growing cities, like Toronto, continue to experience the impact of more commuters on their transit systems. Based on statistics from American Demographics, we can estimate that there are at least 500,000 telecommuters in Canada, a number that is expected to double by 2005.

Despite this growth, some argue that the future of commuting lies not in more highways or subway routes, but in work arrangements that eliminate the daily movement of people between their workplaces and homes. So, should your organization support telecommuting? And, if so, what does it take to make it work?

For employees, telecommuting can offer a better quality of life, more flexible work schedules and reduced costs for commuting, clothing and meals. The disadvantages include lack of face-to-face interaction and a potential negative impact on career development.

For employers, telecommuting can help improve productivity and reduce costs. TeleCommute Solutions estimated that telecommuting employees can be 13 per cent more productive than office staff. Telecommuters also have dramatically lower turnover rates.

I estimate the annual direct cost of providing remote network connections, printing, and couriers to be about $700 per person more than the cost of providing on-site office space and support. However, these costs are easily made up by reduced absenteeism. Remote employees claim one third as many sick days as those working in the office. The primary disadvantage of telecommuting for employers is the inability to directly supervise employees.

As the manager of a telecommuting team for more than eight years, I have found that successful telecommuting requires the following:

High speed connections (at least 56Kbps) – Remote workers live and die by access to e-mail, data files, server-based applications, and the Internet.

Standard equipment – Supply each employee with a standard configuration, quality PC. Do not use employees’ personal machines for access and ask them not to install their own software.

Personal motivation – Choose employees who are motivated to work without direct supervision. Those who are “time-clock” oriented or who will be easily distracted by activities at home may not be good candidates. Consider having people work on-site for six months to a year to assess their work habits before they start telecommuting. You may also want to phase in telecommuting, starting with a few days a week. For some kinds of work, it is possible to manage the motivational aspects of working remotely through incentives. For example, sales staff are motivated by commissions. The concept of a nine-to-five day is meaningless to them.

Scheduled face-to-face meetings – Hold regular, mandatory meetings in the office. The first part of the meeting could cover standard items such as status reporting and administrative updates, while the rest could be used for brainstorming, design workshops, walkthroughs, etc. When it becomes widely available, consider using a PC-based multi-point video conferencing technology. Suitable work – Jobs that are information intensive such as writing and programming and that do not require access to physical facilities (e.g., photocopiers, computer room) make the most sense for telecommuting. But almost any IT job can be conducted remotely.

Motivated, self-disciplined employees seem to thrive in a telecommuting environment because they can manage their workloads and balance their lives around work and home. If this arrangement is something your organization can support, you will find it is a cost-effective strategy. Join the telecommuting revolution.

Hughes is a client delivery executive with EDS. He is currently the EDS Project Director on the Ontario Integrated Justice Project. He can be reached at