Teleworkers multiply, thanks to the Internet

In 2001, one-quarter of the U.S. workforce – about 31 million people -telecommuted during at least some part of their work week, and their ranks are expected to swell to 40 million by 2004, according to a recent study.

Nearly 70 per cent of those teleworkers have access to the Internet from home, enabling them to do their jobs remotely, and often to connect to corporate networks, say researchers at Cahners In-Stat Group. Those Internet-accessing telecommuters number roughly 19 million in the United States – more than 10 per cent of the country’s workforce, the Cahners In-Stat research notes. The trend is occurring across different sizes of businesses, the analysts say.

Most of these workers are employed by small businesses, which is consistent with labour statistics that show a majority of people are employed by small companies nationwide. Small businesses supported an estimated 5.3 million Internet-accessing telecommuters, roughly 13 per cent of all small-business employees.

In addition, teleworkers accounted for 11 per cent of employees for midsize businesses. The study finds that only 10 per cent of the total workforce of enterprise-level corporations are Internet-accessing telecommuters, but they number roughly 5 million.

These ever-larger numbers of telecommuters reflect a change in work attitudes as well as technological advancement, the research firm notes. Cahners In-Stat’s report says employees have more freedom – and support – than ever to set up a home office.

The researchers predict the total number of teleworkers accessing the Internet will grow about 17 per cent annually in the enterprise market, and 11 per cent in the midsize market, through 2004. The report is called “Entering the Access Era: U.S. Telecommuter Demographics & the Impact of Fragmentation on IT Platforms.”

The telecommuting trend that the study identifies is echoed in a recent survey by The New York Times Job Market, the newspaper’s print and online recruitment service. More than one-third of hiring managers predict they’ll have more teleworkers because of employees’ concerns after September 11. Thirty-six percent of job seekers said they hope to telework at their next job; 31 per cent said they’d consider it.

The related challenge for businesses with teleworkers is to provide technical support for these home-based workers, and to ensure secure access to company information when necessary, the researchers say. Kneko Burney, Cahners In-Stat’s director of e-business infrastructure and services, expects the use of virtual private network technology to increase, largely to serve the needs of telecommuters. Burney also expects demand for residential broadband services to go up, driven by telecommuters. Some Internet service providers, seeing an opportunity, charge extra for using a VPN over a residential broadband connection.

Supporting telecommuters could become a significant challenge for IT departments, Burney says.