Fiction Rather Than Fact Often Hampers the Road to Telecommuting to Work

Almost everyone dreams of telecommuting rather than driving to work. Who wouldn’t when it means avoiding the traffic congestion and the lengthening commute times, the surging fuel prices and yes, even the downtime inherent in dealing with traditional office chatter and politics that eat into our productivity.

Yet it’s still a reality for so few despite the fact that technology – from high-speed access, to hardware to software and beyond – has made it increasingly possible to do with great success. The statistics are all over the place for the numbers who telecommute at least part of the time, from eight to eighteen million Americans who work from home one day or more per week. Strangely enough, the number telecommuting has not grown significantly in the past few years, despite changes in technology and accessibility that make it easier to accomplish.

“Employers are still reticent for many reasons,” states M.J. Jensen, a former office recruiter. She says she found 20% or more of applicants for almost any position sought a telecommuting option while less than two percent of the available jobs she handled offered any work-at-home options.

“Even future-thinking employers have a serious issue with telecommuting, fearing they won’t get top productivity or attention out of their non-office employees. At best, some will consider telecommuting for independent contractors because it’s easier to fire these people without the repercussions of terminating a full-fledged employee,” adds Jensen.

But Jensen and others are quick to add that the concept of a home-working employee sitting around in his or her bunny slippers, watching TV, playing video games, or chatting with friends on the phone rather than working is a myth. “If anything,” states Jensen, “studies tell us that the telecommuting employee gives more – often far more – rather than less time to the job than the traditional in-office worker. Part of this is because the home-based worker doesn’t have to waste time in traffic or at the water cooler; the other is that this type of worker wants to prove he or she is a critical part of the team regardless of where he or she is located.”

As someone who has worked remotely, usually from a home office, with great success for companies throughout the world for most of two decades, I too find the idea of a lazy home-based worker far more fiction than fact. I noticed quickly that I averaged 20 more hours in my home office each week than I did when forced to come into a central office. I became far more flexible and worked much more diligently at communication because I recognized how easy it is to get out of touch with the home office when working remotely.

In my experience, I was more the rule than the exception. Others who worked like me also spent more time, became better communicators and documenters, evolved into more flexible and creative problem solvers, wasted far less time, and generally were considered some of the best team players in any organization.

Software like Microsoft Office with its multilevel collaboration features makes is extremely easy to work remotely, particularly through a SharePoint service-enabled intranet. Products like PC Anywhere and Windows Remote Desktop Connection lets you work from an office system while you’re at home and vice versa.

Even the most remote geographical locations can usually get high-speed Internet and intranet access via satellite technology, all within the bounds of affordability. Today’s phone technology affords a multi-purpose machine in every tiny hand-held cell phone and lightweight notebooks like the Slate-based systems bring a traditional clipboard together with a powerful computer and multimedia setup while all very easy to carry around wherever you go.

The question becomes now how soon corporations will catch up with the realities of technology and employment. After all, even major organizations like Microsoft – one of the biggest producers of software to make such remote work possible – do not have a proportionally large percentage of employees who work chiefly from a location other than the office – a point I’ve called to their attention too many times.

How soon will they recognize the productivity they lose by workers who must spend two hours a day in commuting back and forth? How long will it take cost-cutters to realize they can save expenses in the physical plant by allowing at least some of the workforce to produce from home?

One interesting issue to watch will be the supposed impending bird flu pandemic. As I’ve suggested to numerous companies who have consulted with me, it makes sense to prepare now to make it possible for more of their non-essential work staff to move to home-based offices. Keep them out of the traditional plant and you reduce the risk of infection coming in. This should allow companies to keep up their frantic pace of productivity regardless of how much of the general population is felled by the fear – if not the reality – of the pandemic.

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