Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Your Office, At Home.

This month I thought that as the theme is the home office, I would discuss the rapidly emerging trend "teleworking" (or "telecommuting") and it's effects on the office environment as well as productivity and employee vocational satisfaction.

As I sit here writing this (in my robe, listening to Verdi) I am struck by the vast differences in the nature of what is deemed an appropriate working environment today vs. that of only a few years ago. As this is the middle of the afternoon, you would think that I would be in an office somewhere; within close physical proximity to my supervisor, waiting for 5:00. Instead, I am at home composing an article for Monitor; and have chosen to leave the proposal I am working on for later this evening. This behavior would have been frowned upon in past (to say the least); but with the advent of teleworking, the 9-5 workday paradigm has been retired in favour of more flexible models.

Why Teleworking?

At first glance teleworking would seem to have several disadvantages:

  • a lack of supervision leading to reduced output,
  • communication difficulties related to proximity concerns,
  • office based interpersonal relationships not developed,
  • potential loss of security for corporate data, and so on.

In actuality, these concerns are not well founded. The benefits of telecommuting have been amply demonstrated over the past few years and include such gains as increased productivity, reduction in office space costs, reduction in absenteeism, improvements in morale and hitherto unavailable access to global labor markets. While most of these advantages are obvious in their attainment, some are less so. Why, for instance, are productivity increases realized in teleworking? Foremost, teleworkers are not required to commute (a frustrating experience at the best of times), which leaves them more time to devote to their occupation.

The average worker puts in 1 hour of commuting time per day; which translates into 6 full work weeks per annum! Secondly, the home environment is custom designed by the teleworker, leading to a greater degree of comfort. Employee morale is higher due to the lessening of stress normally associated with the office environment. Food and transportation costs are lowered leaving the employee with more disposable income (also affecting morale).

The increased flexibility the teleworking model affords allows the employee to work during their most productive hours (as some individuals (like myself) are just not morning people!). The home environment is also often less prone to interruption of efforts by fellow employees who, as we know, aren't always as task focused as they might be when out of the social context. All these factors lend to the increased productivity of the outbound workforce.

Who is doing this?

For starters, the Canadian government has realized the tremendous potential for this strategy and has thus far employed over 5000 teleworkers; a number which is increasing monthly. In the US, the federal government estimates the number of it's telecommuting employees will rise to 160,000 by the year 2002. With office space at a premium, the savings to be obtained from teleworkers alone more than justifies the investigation of this option. AT&T realized a massive 50% savings on their New Jersey real estate holdings by implementing this strategy.

Pacific Bell has estimated their savings on real estate to be 20 million dollars over a five year period. The effect on productivity is equally impressive: the City of Los Angeles has realized an overall increase of between 12.5 and 20 percent over traditional office-bound employees; and therefore has gained an average saving of over $6000.00 per person. Compaq Computer Corporation has documented productivity increases ranging from 15 to a huge 45 percent by the utilization of telecommuting stratagem. Teleworkers for American Express responded to 26% more calls and accounted for 43% more revenue than their office-bound counterparts.

The Technology Involved

When I think back to the state of communications technology less than 20 years ago when I first got the computer bug, and compare it with what is available today for far less capital investment at the consumer level, it blows my mind! My first "top of the line" modem raced along at a blistering 300bps and I had a choice of one major service provider: CompuServe. Now I can get 2.2Mbps over ADSL to my home (7333 times the speed) and choose from an enormous variety of service providers. This massive increase in bandwidth, along with the proliferation of the Internet and Internet based technologies is definitely responsible for the paradigm shift in the workplace.Now with the advent of secure protocols and virtual private networks (VPN's), the worker need never leave their home to be connected to the corporate WAN.

For those with concerns regarding the loss of normal face to face interaction between employees at all levels, video conferencing affords the means by which this is effectuated. Tools are readily available which even enhance "normal" communications including MS Netmeeting. Netmeeting is offered by Microsoft for free on their website and represents the "state-of-the-art" in conferencing software. Users may both see and hear their counterparts (typical of any video conferencing package); but may also share files, engage in whiteboarding activities and collaborate on projects by sharing applications and marking up a single document. You can even cut and paste across the Internet, allowing for rapid compilation of documents from sources ranging from around the corner to around the world! The only shortcoming of this excellent package is that while text input may be shared universally, as yet you may only share audio and video with one other meeting participant. The buzz on the street is that this issue is being addressed in the next version... let's keep our fingers crossed!

Some Final Thoughts

Telecommuting, while great for both employees and corporations, is also benefiting the world at large. While this may seem like quite a stretch, consider the following-

Telecommuting is responsible for:

  • a reduction in air pollution and resulting ozone depletion from the toxic emissions associated with automobiles,
  • a reduction of stress leading to lessening of public health costs,
  • an excellent means of providing regional economic diversity and sustainability,
  • a reduction of "urban sprawl",
  • providing viable employment options for members of our society who live with disabilities and
  • reducing crime (daytime break-ins).

 

While these are only a few of the numerous benefits associated with the engagement of teleworkers in roles more traditionally held by office-bound employees; I'm certain that you can come up with many others.
Telecommuting is here to stay so until next time, take a good look around your home, as it may soon also be your office!

Originally published in Monitor magazine's Lan ConXions column, April, 1998, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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