Opinion: Telecommuting: The Secret to Employer Happiness

When it comes to making employers happy, happy employees are right up there with high-paying customers and a successful business.

And what employer wouldn’t be happy to be able to make employees more content without resorting to raises and bonuses? One way to increase employee happiness without increasing budgets is to implement a strong, flexible telecommuting program. Done right, telecommuting can improve employees’ work/life balance while boosting their productivity and efficiency. Telecommuting has become such a key factor in employee happiness that those companies that don’t offer it risk losing out on top talent.

Telecommuting Defined

Most people agree that telecommuters are people who work out of the office, using equipment such as mobile phones, PDAs and laptops to communicate with co-workers and clients. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they work from home. Telecommuters also work in field offices, at work sites, in coffee shops around the corner, on picnic benches outside the office, in company lunchrooms — anywhere away from their desks.

The telecommuting concept took hold when Boas Shamir and Ilan Salomon published "Work-at-Home and the Quality of Working Life" in The Academy of Management Review in 1985. It opened people’s eyes to telecommuting, sparking a new business trend. Shortly afterwards, in 1986, Gil E. Gordon and Marcia M. Kelly wrote Telecommuting: How to Make It Work for You and Your Company. By then, 17.3 million Americans were already participating in telecommuting programs.

Beyond those early adopters, take-up was slow. Many bosses felt that if their underlings weren’t in the office, they weren’t working. But most employers eventually got over those perceptions and started offering telecommuting. Three things were crucial in showing employers that their perceptions were false: They noticed that telecommuters were getting work done, they discovered that telecommuters were happier, and they realized that telecommuting offered a better balance between work and life.

Today, telecommuting is becoming standard procedure. In fact, as many as 27 million people in the United States work from home. Nearly 40% of companies have remote work policies, according to a 2007 study conducted by Yoh. Moreover, the study found that 31% of companies believe it’s very likely that telecommuting will increase over the next two years.

What’s crucial to understand is the purpose of telecommuting. Telecommuting is not a substitute for day care. It’s not free vacation time. Employers offer it to make employees’ lives easier and keep them productive when they can’t come to the office. The goal is create happy employees through a better working environment. It’s also important to remember that telecommuting policies and preferences may vary from company to company. Some employers may allow telecommuting for the entire workweek, while others may prefer that telecommuting employees do so only once or twice a week.

Telecommuting’s Benefits

Best Buy is a great example of a company that has infused telecommuting into its business. Under its Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) program, employees come and go when they please, no excuses necessary. Employees are aware of major deliverables in advance, and management trusts them to get the job done. The premise — that employees should be judged based on output, not number of hours in the office — instills a sense of worth.

And results prove the value of ROWE. Best Buy employees report better relationships with family and friends and say they feel more energized about work since the program was instituted.

Those results can be chalked up to improved work/life balance and the reduction in stress that can accompany a decrease in commuting time. But there are other benefits to be gained from telecommuting programs. For example, offices can be noisy and distracting, making it difficult to get work done. Telecommuters can work wherever they’re most comfortable, and that flexibility translates into better productivity and efficiency. And some employers have found that many employees spend time working that they would have spent commuting.

Telecommuting also can be key in recruiting and retention. Companies that demonstrate through their policies that they understand that employees have lives outside of the office are more attractive to job candidates. Even employees who would have been lost because a spouse was taking a job far away can now be held on to if they have jobs conducive to telecommuting.

Finally, telecommuting saves employees money. If 10% of the American workforce worked from home one day a week, the country would save over 1.2 million gallons of fuel per week, according to Telecommute America. And with gas prices averaging nearly $3 per gallon, and with parking fees astronomical in many metro areas, we’re talking big bucks.

Steps to a Good Program

But wait a minute — don’t offer telecommuting just yet! To realize these benefits, employers should follow a few important tips when building telecommuting programs into their business:

  • Develop comprehensive, clear policies. Telecommuting policies should be comprehensive and fully explain how employees are allowed to telecommute. Include which positions are eligible, what kind of work can be done out of office, and the hours or days of the year employees can telecommute.

  • Ensure employees understand policies. Employers should give employees hard copies of telecommuting policies. They can also require that employees read and sign policies before granting telecommuting options.

  • Post schedules. Employers should post telecommuting schedules in the office to keep everyone aware of when and how to reach telecommuters. This is especially important when emergencies arise and employees and managers need to contact one another immediately.

  • Implement a broadband policy. Decide whether or not you are going to pay for telecommuters’ high-speed Internet access. Doing so is a way to ensure that employees can access their e-mail and remain connected effectively.

  • Set and enforce security policies. Employees who work out of the office and connect to the corporate network can provide new avenues for security threats to enter the corporate environment. Decide whether telecommuters will be provisioned with laptops and other devices whose settings the company can control or whether they will use their own gear.

  • Maintain company "family." Employers can maintain essential social connections with telecommuters by holding after-hours gatherings, such as sports games or barbecues. Otherwise, telecommuters can easily feel distanced from the rest of the group.

Now, with all this in mind, go ahead and spread some happiness.

Jim Lanzalotto is vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh, a provider of talent and outsourcing services and a unit of Day & Zimmermann. For more information, visit www.yoh.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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