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Best Practices for Telecommuting

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Best practices for managing telecommuting employees


Henry Sorensen
Capella University

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of using employees to conduct their work at home through a telecommuting process. Companies have long seen the financial benefits of transitioning workers to a telecommuting environment. Recent research suggests that telecommuting likewise benefits workers through reduced conflict between work and family. Drawbacks are considered related to teleworking and consist of increased feelings of worker isolation, reduced productivity, and perceptions of the career limiting nature of participating in telecommuting. Best practices are recommended for maximizing the benefits of teleworking. Managers need to fully embrace teleworking and need to alter how success is measured relative to employee productivity. Finally, success in telecommuting rests heavily on workers having the ability to control or manage how and when their work output is completed.

Introduction

Telecommuting, or teleworking as it is known abroad involves having employees conduct work activities primarily from their homes. Statistics show that the number of Americans working from home now surpasses over 40 million (Major, Verive & Joice, 2008; Pearce, 2009). It is expected that the number employees engaged in telecommuting will continue to increase as technology provides greater access from remote distances and as organizations further realize that many work activities can be completed in a telecommuting environment.

One reason telecommuting has increased in usage is that organizations see financial benefits to telecommuting such as being able to reduce costs associated with operating fixed offices (Harris, 2003; Gajendran & Harrison, 2007). In addition to saving on rent, telecommuting reduces expenses related to office maintenance, data and telecommunications infrastructure and well as the number of support staff required to operate central offices. Additionally, telecommuting permits employers to incrementally add individual employees without having to consider where to house or support them.

As businesses consider the financial benefits to telecommuting it is important for them to consider the psychological impact that telecommuting has on employees in order to ensure that telecommuting likewise benefits the employee. The purpose of this paper is to discuss how telecommuting influences the employee and as a result the business compared to the traditional work environment.

Benefits to Telecommuting

Over the past two decades, numerous studies have investigated telecommuting and its impact on the worker. Results from these studies have revealed that there are many benefits that the worker derives from telecommuting. Several of the most important benefits are discussed in this section.

Reduced Work/Family Conflict

Perhaps the biggest benefit to the worker relates to how telecommuting reduces conflicts between work and family. Work and family conflict exists when the demands of work reduce the ability of the individual to accommodate the needs of the family (Peeters, de Jonge, Janssen, & van der Linden, 2004). If a child is sick and needs care at home, or if there is a family activity (e.g. baseball game) occurring shortly after the workday, workers feel anxiety if work precludes them from participating in these important family events. As stated by Valcour (2007), “working people want to be able to fulfill their commitments to both work and family” (p. 1512, para. 2) and subsequently feel anxiety and stress when they are unsuccessful in satisfying both. Telecommuting has been shown to effectively moderate or reduce the amount of work/family conflict (Golden, Veiga & Simsek, 2006; Gajendran & Harrison, 2007) as it permits workers to balance these competing demands.

Work/family conflict impacts the organization as well in that work does not always take priority over the family. Barling (1994, as cited by Major, Verive, & Joice, 2008) indicates that caregivers in traditional work environments “are more likely to arrive for work late, leave early, … and tend to other dependent care tasks during work hours” (p. 68, para. 2). By allowing telecommuting to serve as a workplace option, economic losses to the company which are associated with absenteeism can largely be mitigated.

Improved Employee Retention

Telecommuting may reduce business expenses associated with recruitment and training because telecommuting has been shown to reduce employee turnover (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007). Pearce (2009) in a case study analysis reported that Best Buy saw decreases between 50-90% in turnover rates after implementing a telecommuting policy for its corporate workforce.

The impact of telecommuting on retention extends beyond those that are already happy with the organization. Even in circumstances where the telecommuting employee is unhappy or feels disconnected from the organization, these employees show a reluctance to quit (Harris, 2003). This finding is somewhat contrary to what would be expected as dissatisfaction with work generally leads to employees selecting different career options. But some suggest that employees may perceive the benefits of having a telecommuting job outweigh dissatisfaction leading to a desire to maintain the job no matter the satisfaction level (Golden, Veiga, & Dino, 2008; Jacobs, 2008). While it is recommended that businesses maintain employee satisfaction, it is interesting to note that teleworking can be considered a benefit that employees may not wish to give up.

Increased size of talent pool

In a labor market where talent is abundant, employers can be selective in hiring employees for traditional working environments. However, when work talent is scarce it may become necessary to recruit non-traditional workers (i.e. disabled workers or stay-at-home moms) to meet the businesses’ productivity demands (West & Anderson, 2005). Telecommuting can help provide a means whereby non-traditional workers can be actively engaged in the workforce. It accomplishes this feat by permitting individuals to work in environments that meet their own unique physical or emotional needs (West & Anderson).

In addition to gaining access to non-traditional workers, telecommuting permits businesses to hire the best employees regardless of their location. Some employees may be reluctant to relocate their family members merely to accommodate a business need. By permitting telecommuting, businesses gain access to talented individuals that live beyond their geographic boundaries, can reduce or eliminate relocation costs associated with transferring employees to remote locations, and can keep the employee’s family happy (Prehar, 2001).

Improved Productivity

Workers that telecommute have been shown to provide double digit productivity growth (Pearce, 2009) compared to rates in traditional work settings. Reasons for this growth may be that workers are less frequently interrupted when working from home and may be able to better concentrate on the tasks they are working on.

Potential Challenges

Just as telecommuting has psychological benefits for employees such as conflict reduction, it can have its challenges if implemented improperly or if not supported properly from management. Research has shown that not all telecommuting deployments are as productive as they could be. In certain circumstances telecommuting can lead to decreased productivity, diminished career satisfaction and reduced worker commitment to the corporation.

Impact of Isolation on productivity

A study by Golden, Veiga, & Dino (2008) revealed that in cases where the employee feels professionally isolated from the company, productivity may actually decrease in a telecommuting environment. While employees can feel isolated even when working in a traditional office, telecommuting can exacerbate the feeling of isolation due the physical separation from others. Unfortunately, as Golden, Veiga & Dino conclude, the more time an isolated worker spends outside the office, the lower the worker’s productivity.

Productivity may also be lost related to distractions in the home environment (Marsh & Musson, 2008). While the workers no longer are interrupted by co-workers, they may be interrupted by spouses, young children, household pets, etc. If employees are not careful they may end up acting upon these distractions which will diminish their capacity to do their required work (Golden, Veiga, & Simsek, 2006).

Diminished Career Satisfaction

Physical separation from other workers is implicit in telecommuting. Unfortunately, for those that rely on social contact to help them establish who they are within the company, this isolation can lead to employees with diminished confidence not only in their own abilities, but in their feelings of how they are perceived by their organizations (Golden, Veiga, & Dino, 2008). Workers have reported that in some instances telecommuting leaves them with a sense of “invisibility” (Harris, 2003, p. 430, para. 5) in that they feel no one knows what they do, nor do they feel anyone else cares. If employees do not feel that telecommuting is truly supported by management, they may consider its use to be a long-term hindrance to their future career opportunities (Dikkers et al., 2007). Employees compelled to telecommute in this environment may be hesitant to give it their full support.

Reduced Commitment to the Corporation

Jacobs (2008) indicates that organizational commitment means more than merely fulfilling one’s obligation to a company. Rather, it means proactively acting in the best interests of the company when given the opportunity to go beyond the contractual requirements. While it is true that office-based employees may likewise fail to act on behalf of a firm, the physical separation and isolation that a telecommuting employee feels can lessen the commitment an employee feels towards the employer.

Without exposure to physically and spatially shared structures and systems that maintain organizational identification, teleworkers may come to view themselves as independent contractors, operating autonomously and without consideration or motivation to pursue goals of the organization that employs them

(Jacobs, 2008, p. 43, para. 1).

In consideration of the limitations telecommuting places on establishing corporate commitment, organizations that fail to find alternate ways to establish or maintain these relationships may find they employ a workforce that merely goes through the motions.

Best Practices

What steps can managers take to better implement a telecommuting strategy? This section will focus on what research supports as the most effective methods for successfully implementing telecommuting.

Management Acceptance of Telecommuting

As demonstrated in the discussion of telecommuting drawbacks described above, telecommuting success and the associated organization and worker benefits are heavily dependent on actions taken by both the worker and the employer (Peeters, de Jonge, Janssen, & van der Linden, 2004). Unless workers perceive that the employer is truly committed to telecommuting, using telecommuting as an option will not yield the intended benefits. A study of federal employees that telecommute revealed that over 56% felt that for telecommuting to be more effective, both management policies and perceptions related telecommuting would have to change (Major, Verive, & Joice, 2008). What these findings convey is that success with telecommuting needs to involve more than permitting employees to work from home. Effective telecommuting policies need to involve training managers on how to effectively manage the work output of employees. Additionally, managers need to support telecommuting policies by conveying to employees that telecommuting is not a career ending move.

Planning Telecommuting Transitions

Two contrasting case studies of successful and unsuccessful implementation of telecommuting reveal that good planning is a necessary component of successful telecommuting deployment (Jacobs, 2003; Akkirman & Harris, 2005). Planning is much more than merely providing employees with the necessary equipment and technical support. It also involves preparing employees for the anticipated emotional challenges they may encounter such as isolation and dealing with distractions while at home.

One challenge for employees working in a telecommuting environment is the realization that home may no longer be an escape from work. Some workers find that telecommuting changes their work life from a 9 to 5 job to a 24/7 job (Jacobs, 2003). Coping with this change, and being able to turn off work is important and may involve expending effort not typically considered as part of the telecommuting process (Tietze, 2005). Proper planning and training that helps employees cope with expected changes can help ease the work transition.

A good implementation plan will also focus on manager training to include specifics on the changes they need to make in order for telecommuting to be successful. Training should involve teaching the managers how to manage telecommuters to achieve the organization’s end goals and how to maintain contact and communication with the workers.

Management by Objective

A key component of employee satisfaction with telecommuting involves changing the method in which work output is measured. Work output in an office setting is typically measured through a time clock. Unfortunately, keeping track of the time employees spend at work poses several problems in a telecommuting environment (Pearce, 2009) not the least of which is verifying the accuracy of time reports. Several studies have indicated that the best method for managing telecommuting employees is through a process called Management by Objective (Konradt, Hertel, & Schmook, 2003) or Management by Results (Major, Verive, & Joice, 2008; Akkirman & Harris, 2005).

Management by Objective is a process whereby managers focus on work output rather than the time spent doing the work. The premise of the process is that if the employee successfully completes the project on-time, it is counted as success. The process begins by engaging both the worker and the manager in setting measurable productivity output goals. It is implicit in the goal setting that feedback will be provided by the manager to the employee to correct behavior or to affirm the adequacy of the employee’s work (Yanagizawa, 2008).

Management by objective processes serve the interests of both the employee and the manager in that both can share the common productivity measuring mechanism. This permits the employee the freedom to work in whatever manner he/she decides, and it removes the responsibility from the manager from the obligation of checking of the employees daily work schedule.

Worker Control over work scheduling

Studies have concluded that job satisfaction is influenced most by the autonomy the worker feels he/she has relative to scheduling work tasks (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007; Major, Verive, & Joice, 2008). What this means is that workers are permitted to schedule when they do their work without fear of ridicule by their managers. Scheduling control does not mean that employees set the schedule for when work is to completed, but rather that the employee is able to look at the time requirements for a project, then determine when during the week the work will be completed (i.e. early morning, late evenings, weekends, etc.)

By being able to control the schedule of work, workers are able to meet the demands of both the family and employer without sacrificing effort towards either (Valcour, 2007). In fact, work scheduling autonomy is so powerful that it also serves to reduce the influence that extra work demands (i.e. longer working hours) has on work satisfaction (Valcour). In other words, in cases where workers were asked to work longer hours, those with control over when they completed those hours did not experience an increase in work dissatisfaction as compared to those without such scheduling control.

It should be mentioned that there may be a concern on the part of managers that without daily monitoring of employees important tasks may not be completed. Additionally, employees may think that setting individual schedules may be difficult as procrastination may prevent them from getting things done. The literature reviewed for this paper included very little regarding these concerns except to state that worker control over scheduling and managing by objectives were effective tools in telecommuting environments. One possible reason why these concerns have not been directly investigated is that project due dates may serve as a silent task master driving the employees to action. By allowing the project due dates to dictate work performance, there is likely to be less resentment of workers of their managers. At the same time, completion of projects provides an evidence based approach to use in evaluating worker performance. Given this lack of information, it may be useful for managers to break project tasks into smaller pieces with shorter time milestones so that performance can be managed to ensure that employees are adapting well to their new work processes.

Home work environment

Employers need to determine whether telecommuting is likely to lead to stress in the home environment for the employee (Major, Verive, & Joice, 2008). Dealing with non-work related stressors in the home environment depends to a great extent upon the priorities of the individual worker (Konradt, Hertel, & Schmook, 2003). Some workers may find familial requests quite distracting while others consider attending to such distractions as the primary benefit of telecommuting. Employers should help workers determine how to establish a work environment in the home that is conducive to meeting their separate priorities.

Employers should be prepared to provide employees with all the tools necessary for telecommuting such as computers, telephones, etc. (Akkirman & Harris, 2005). Employers should also consider providing teleworking employees with an allowance to use in setting up the home office rather than expecting the employee to fund the office furniture and accessories needed to do the work (Jacob, 2003).

Finally, employers should also train the employees on the use of the technology and provide resources to help maintain and support employees should they have technical difficulties. Providing good support will help reduce the feelings of isolation as employees encounter technical challenges.

Worker Input

Feedback from employees is important when determining how to implement a telecommuting policy (Jacobs, 2003). Not all workers appear to be willing or capable of telecommuting and a policy that forces telecommuting may lead to a decrease in worker satisfaction, productivity and increased turnover (Jacobs).

Employers should involve the workers in the processes it will use to monitor work behaviors (i.e. keystroke logging, IP address tracking, etc.) when routine monitoring is necessary. Alge (2001) found that when workers were involved in the rationale for monitoring, and provided input into the types and frequency of monitoring, monitoring was considered acceptable. Without such input, employees resented the monitoring and considered it unjust and an invasion of privacy.

Maintaining Contact

Workers may feel anonymous if they are left to work without much interaction with co-workers or managers (Golden, Veiga, & Dino, 2008). Some workers express they welcome more regular interaction so as to convey to management that they are present at the job (Jacobs, 2003).

A recommended best practice is for managers to schedule periodic face-to-face meetings with employees (Akkirman & Harris, 2005). While there is some disagreement about whether periodic face-to-face contact by itself moderates the feeling of isolation, it is an important tool that can be used to maintain the employee relationship thereby sustaining productivity and worker satisfaction. One additional suggestion for maintaining personal contact is for each company to provide remotely located workers with an information liaison within the company to keep employees abreast of the company’s activities (Konradt, Hertel, & Schmook, 2003).

Patience with the Change

Moving from a traditional office to a home-based office takes some adjustment both in altering work management processes and in physically adapting to work in the home environment. Fortunately, work stress and family conflict will decrease as both the individual and the family adjust to the new working conditions (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007; Jacobs, 2003; Tietze, 2005).

A recommended best practice is for managers to schedule periodic face-to-face meetings with employees (Akkirman & Harris, 2005). While there is some disagreement about whether periodic face-to-face contact by itself moderates the feeling of isolation, it is an important tool that can be used to maintain the employee relationship thereby sustaining productivity and worker satisfaction. One additional suggestion for maintaining personal contact is for each company to provide remotely located workers with an information liaison within the company to keep employees abreast of the company’s activities (Konradt, Hertel, & Schmook, 2003).

Summary

Telecommuting appears to offer many benefits to workers and employers alike. In addition to cost savings with having workers conduct their work activities from home, businesses find that employees are more satisfied in their work and that workers are more willing to stay engaged as employees for their firm.

Not every telecommuting story is successful as some employees have difficulty relating to the new isolation felt while working from home. In cases where the workers are dissatisfied, productivity can actually decrease below traditional work levels. The message to employers is to maintain contact with employees and do not assume that natural processes will be sufficient for maintaining good relationships. By proactively interacting with employees, meeting face-to-face on occasion and sharing corporate news and information, employers can maintain good relations with their remotely located workers.

In this paper several best practices were recommended to improve the telecommuting process for both the employer and the employee. The most successful strategies appear to be giving the worker control over his/her work schedule, and changing the management structure to focus on outcomes rather than on time spent at the desk. By following these processes workers will be able to realize the benefits of reduced worker/family stress through meeting their individual needs. Businesses will also be able to focus more on outcomes rather than daily processes.

References

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