Telecommuting Boon Or Bane

August 24, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The last time telecommuting was encouraged by employers was during the 1970s, due to the oil crisis and economic recession, said Susan Ascher, president and CEO of The Ascher Group, a national provider of human resources contract professionals and a specialist on workplace and job market issues. And just like aviator sunglasses, an economic recession and oil crisis are back in force, which means working at home is making a comeback.

Steelcase Inc. commissioned a four-part survey of 700 white-collar workers as part of its Nature of Work series dealing with issues facing the workplace.

The survey revealed that a slight majority of office workers believe it is beneficial for a company to endorse telecommuting, yet the majority of office workers feel it will hurt their career outlook. Sixty-four percent said that lack of contact with their employer would lessen their chances of a promotion.

Ascher stressed the fact that telecommuting still requires people to come into the office.

“Telecommuting doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be sitting at home five days a week,” said Ascher. “We’re talking about telecommuting perhaps in a four-day work week. If you’re in your office four out of five days, I don’t believe at all for one second that is going to in any way harm your chances of getting ahead in your job. The idea is that you have to be visible when you’re there, but the idea is that the telecommuting is an enhancement to your economic life and also your work/life balance.”

Chris Congdon, manager of corporate marketing for Steelcase, commented on the same notion. “Technology has enabled me to work wherever. Work is still a social activity. When people are telecommuting, there are still times when they’ll have to come in.”

Out of those polled, 80 percent agreed that technology allows them to stay just as connected to the office as if they were there. Still, many believe that their employers want them in the office so they can control the work environment and guard against a lack of productivity. But half of the workers said a different environment would boost their productivity and office morale.

“Telecommuting and working out of your home doesn’t mean you’re going to be watching soaps all day,” said Ascher.

“You’ve just come in from an hour and a half commute: What’s the first thing you do? Do you go sit down at your desk and turn on the computer and start working? No. You probably first need a cup of coffee; you stand at the cooler and talk to a few people. When you’re telecommuting, you get up, you go to your desk, you turn on the computer and you start working.”

Ascher pointed out that many employees spend more than an hour a day at work taking care of personal needs. Telecommuting, she said, would help reduce “burn-out” and wasted time at the work site, causing employees to be more focused when they are there.

“The lines between work and life are continuing to blur and at an increasing pace,” said Congdon. “Office workers view telecommuting as a way to be successful in both life and work. Employees appreciate companies that allow them to strike a balance, and if done well, the company can reap the rewards, as well.”

Telecommuting is still a rather new trend, said Ascher, and the best implementation she has seen has been moving from a five-day to a four-day schedule. She stated that it can help both employee and employer save money in several ways. For employers that includes the cost of office space, which the New Jersey-based company sees as a major factor with many of its clients. For employees, savings go beyond saving money on gas.

“If you stay home, there’s a good chance that you might slap a peanut butter and jelly or a tuna fish sandwich together,” said Ascher. “If you go to the office, even if you’re in the company cafeteria, it’s still five or 10 bucks a day. Even, on some level, maybe your wardrobe gets pared down.”

Along with 80 percent of the respondents, Ascher and Congdon believe the trend toward telecommuting will continue.

“As the work force changes from the baby boomers to Generations X, Y and the new Millennials — I mean, we talk about people who work virtually, but these young generations coming behind the boomers, that’s all they know,” said Ascher. “They’re not going to have a problem telecommuting. They know that things can be conducted virtually and be very successful and effective. Why is Facebook the No. 1 thing out there for kids of that generation?”

Congdon also suggested that it is a factor for employers to use in attracting and retaining young talent.

“We are seeing a much higher comfort level among Millennials for working in diverse locations. As employers are saying, ‘Wow. We’ve got this whole new generation of people coming into the workplace. I’ve got to be thinking of how my space is designed to attract them.’ Because a lot of younger workers don’t necessarily want to come into a place that looks like rows of endless cubes. They’re looking for different spaces.”

Congdon added that there is a growing need to diversify how office.

“That’s going to be the next chapter,” said Ascher. “Since a lot of these jobs can be done on laptops, certain companies … are designing spaces that look like huge living rooms, where in a certain corner you can have a meeting with five or 10 people and they’re spread out on sofas and comfortable chairs. And they bring their laptops and cell phones and everyone is working as a team in this area, as opposed to what we know as a conference room, which is a large cubicle, if you will.”

Nevertheless, of those surveyed who could telecommute, only 32 percent take advantage of the opportunity.

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