Telecommuting – allowing employees to work all or at least a portion of their week from home – isn’t a new idea. However, it’s a growing trend that offers small businesses and workers alike many mutually beneficial advantages, but can cause several problems as well.
A History of Telecommuting
Interestingly enough, working from home was the norm until the Industrial Revolution. The farmer worked his fields. The cobbler lived behind or above his shop, as did the merchant, the tailor and the miller. Only with the advent of the modern factory did workers actually “go” to work somewhere other than where they lived.
The term “telecommuting” was born in the early 1970s following a research study on California insurance workers who performed their jobs from a remote satellite office electronically connected to the main office across town. Working remotely from home began as a response to the 1979 oil crisis to cut down on gasoline consumption at a time of national economic crisis.
Telecommuting as we know it today – letting large groups of people work regularly from home rather than the office – took off in the 1990s after the passage of the Clean Air Act. Employers say it was a way to comply with the act – to give workers extra flexibility and to save money on expensive office space.
In the 2010s, many companies of all sizes utilized telecommuting in at least some form. Both employer and employee have reported many benefits from adopting the practice, but it has caused enough problems and concerns that some firms have actually cut back on its use. If your small business is thinking about allowing employees to telecommute, here are a few key advantages and disadvantages you should consider before doing so.
Increased productivity – Studies have shown worker productivity frequently increases when employees are allowed to telecommute. Workers report fewer interruptions during the workday, enabling them to accomplish more tasks in less time than at the office, where frequent, lengthy and often unnecessary meetings disrupt the workflow.
Greater flexibility and attendance – Linked with productivity, workers have greater flexibility in their workdays. While, at first, small business owners may wonder how this helps them, they quickly realize employees can better take care of personal tasks (such as cable TV repairs or car repairs) that interrupt their work and cause them to miss days. While working from home they are less likely to call in sick because of an ill child or spouse, as they can now more easily take care of them while continuing to work.
Lower costs – Obviously workers save commuting costs as well as wardrobe expenses, but businesses also see monetary savings as well in terms of having to rent less office space and lower utility bills.
Work/Life distractions – Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for telecommuting. It takes discipline to concentrate on work when it’s a sunny day outside. While in an office, the worker is stuck at a desk. However, at home, with no one watching over them, some people may not be able to resist the temptation to go sit by the pool when they should be focusing on the important tasks at hand. If your small business is considering adopting telecommuting, one key question to ask is, “Can this employee handle the distractions?”
Lack of supervision – Tied into the distractions aspect comes supervision. As some workers may not be cut out for telecommuting, some managers or small business owners may not be as well. Telecommuting requires a minimalist “hands-off” management style that gives employees greater reign over what they do and when they do it. It requires confidence and trust from the manager that the telecommuting employee can work with minimal supervision and complete the assigned tasks on a deadline. “Hands-on” managers and owners will have trouble with telecommuting because the employee will be out of sight. If you’re considering allowing telecommuting, in addition to asking if the employee can handle working from home, you need to ask yourself if you and your managers can deal with it as well.
Dependence on technology – When employees work from home, you will no longer be able to walk to a person’s desk and ask how a project is coming along. You can’t call a meeting at a moment’s notice and have everyone walk into the conference room. You will now be dependent on technology – phones, internet, email, etc. – to contact your employees and to get projects and updates from them – and they from you. If you’re considering allowing telecommuting, you need to have a system in place to enable quick and efficient communications so that you can reach your employees when you need to and they can reach you when necessary.
Will Telecommuting Work for You? Only You Can Answer That
Many companies have seen great success after adopting telecommuting. Others have been disappointed in the results and have stopped the practice. Each situation is, of course, unique. Whether telecommuting will work for your small business is only something you can decide. As with any business decision, it’s one that should be made with careful consideration as to the advantages and disadvantages both to you and to your employees.