As the our global network known as the Internet increases its size and speed, the future of telecommuting becomes more and more promising. Generally speaking, telecommuting is defined as spending at least one day out of a five day work week working in one’s home. In a growing number of companies, traditional office space is giving way to home offices, living rooms and even kitchens as employees work from home, from their cars or virtually anywhere. Until recently, technology was the main barrier to telecommuting. Now the biggest hurdles are cultural, organizational and managerial. Those organizations that have introduced well designed and supported home-working schemes have benefited from lower costs, higher productivity, greater flexibility and a more motivated workforce.
Both companies and employees are discovering the benefits of virtual workspaces. Businesses that successfully incorporate them will be able to significantly cut their overhead costs. It would cost much less to have a few people answering phones at home at 3 o’clock in the morning than running a skeleton crew in a heated/air-conditioned, lighted, and such office building. The employer can offer telecommuting as an option for prospective employees to improve recruitment. As an added bonus, companies heighten their public image as environmentally conscious by saving some ozone by curtailing traffic and commuters. They’re also finding that by being flexible, they’re more responsive to customers, while retaining key personnel whom otherwise might be lost to a spouse’s transfer or a new child. Left to generally work on their own terms, employees most often are happier, as well as more creative and productive.
How are employees likely to benefit? That depends mostly to which particular employee we are referring. Telecommuting allows someone with a physical handicap that could not actually commute to the workplace to still function as a valuable employee. It would allow someone who has small children and feels a great need to be home for them to still work and have a career. The distance an employee must travel daily to work is a factor that can induce great amounts of frustration and expense in one’s life. Telecommuting can alleviate this stress. And, employees who successfully embrace the concept are better able to manage their work and personal lives. Allowing greater freedom and bestowing greater responsibility can enhance job satisfaction. However, employees should be aware of some of the pitfalls of telecommuting as well as the benefits. It is estimated that telecommuters earn less overall then office workers.
Managers often fear that employees will not get enough work done if they can’t see them. Most veterans of the virtual office, however, maintain that the exact opposite is true. All too often, employees wind up fielding phone calls in the evening or stacking an extra hour or two on top of an eight-hour day. Not surprisingly, that can create an array of problems, including burnout, errors and marital conflict. Another potential problem with which virtual employees must deal is handling all the distractions that can occur at home. As a result, many firms will provide workers with specific guidelines for handling work at home. The majority of workers will adjust and become highly productive in an alternative office environment. The most important thing for a company to do is to give suggestions that will help workers adapt.
This new work environment is designed around the concept that one’s best thinking isn’t necessarily done at a desk or in an office. Sometimes, it’s done in a conference room with several people. Other times it’s done on a ski slope or driving to a client’s office. The idea is to eliminate the boundaries about where people are supposed to think, to create an environment that is stimulating and rich in resources. Employees decide on their own where they will work each day, and are judged on work produced rather than on hours put in at the office. Because workers aren’t in the same place every day, they may be exposed to a wider range of people and situations. And that can open their eyes and minds to new ideas and concepts.
Technology is obviously the driving force behind the shift to telecommuting. Technology can be relatively straightforward – a good PC with licensed office software and a modem or DSL connection to the central systems. These must in turn be designed to enable remote working – for example database applications should use client-server techniques to minimize workstation bandwidth requirements. For many home-workers a combination of email, file-transfer and intranet/internet access is sufficient. Some Internet service providers are offering secure gateway services into corporate systems, an advantage being national and international access for the price of a local call
A broad range of information and communications technologies is beginning to enable better organizational effectiveness, efficiency and customer service:
 High speed computer and phone system networking allows staff to use any standard desktop, independently of location – main office, other office, home or on-the-move
 Intranets (high speed internal internets) are easy to implement and maintain and can offer simple, standard interfaces to most corporate applications including legacy mainframe and client-server systems
 Integrated desktop applications, such as Microsoft Office, can streamline and automate a wide variety of office tasks with minimal programming effort
 With computer-telephony integration (CTI) the IT and phone systems (fixed and portable) can work in harmony to deliver advanced messaging and call-center solutions
 The Internet is already widely used in the technology sector for customer service and support – use will extend to other sectors as networks improve and consumer and business usage grows, especially with the advent of Internet-enabled televisions
 Document image processing (DIP) and optical character recognition (OCR) support the elimination of paper and streamline associated processes, for example by scanning incoming mail and other documents.
Companies maintain links with the mobile work force in a variety of ways. Employees access their E-mail and voicemail daily; important messages and policy updates are broadcast regularly into the mailboxes of thousands of workers. When the need for teleconferencing arises, it can put hundreds of employees on the line simultaneously. Typically, the organization’s mobile workers link from cars, home offices, hotels, even airplanes. Virtual workers are only a phone call away. Certainly, telephony has become, and will continue to be a powerful driver in the virtual-office boom. Satellites and high-tech telephone systems, such as DSL lines, allow companies to zoom data from one location to another at light speed. Organizations will link to their work force and hold virtual meetings using tools such as video-conferencing.
The trend is being bolstered by growing corporate acceptance of the workstyle and a recognition by employers that it is mutually beneficial for them and their employees. The strong economy coupled with high employment rates has created a positive environment for alternative workstyles and has prompted employers to use the telecommuting option to lure highly sought-after, skilled employees.
Joanne Pratt, president of Joanne H. Pratt Associates cited three factors that are driving the growth of telecommuting:
 Internet growth
The Internet has created a demand for PCs and provided an incentive to set up a home office.
 Technology has reached a critical mass
Cell phones, notebook computers and other technologies have resulted in the workforce that is equipped to work anywhere.
 Work/life balance
Employees are paying attention to work/life choices and even conditioning their acceptance of new jobs on pre-approval to telecommuting.
In its first major study of telecommuting in two years, FIND/SVP reports 11 million Americans now telecommute to the office. That’s a 30% jump from two years ago and a 175% leap from 1990. FIND/SVP expects U.S. telecommuting to swell another 3 million by the year 2001. Another research company, The Yankee Group, agrees the telecommuting workforce is growing at a brisk clip (18% per year). The American Management Association forecasts a 171% growth in telecommuting over the next five years. The rapid technology adoption was also noticed by the FIND/SVP survey, which discovered that an estimated 31 percent of telecommuters use the Internet, more than double the average rate for home users, and 75 percent of telecommuters use personal computers.
Looking ahead, it’s just a simple matter of mathematics. Computer and networking equipment is getting better and cheaper. Office space is getting more expensive. Highway traffic is becoming more congested. It’s only a matter of time until home workers become as numerous as office workers. Eventually, this will mean that IT departments have to become as adept at supporting these remote workers as they are at supporting LAN-based users in company offices. Keeping a fleet of temperamental laptop computers up and running is part of the headache. Keeping the connection to the Internet up 24-by-7 will also loom large, as will volume purchases of personal fax machines and printers.
Society is on the frontier of a fundamental change in the way the workplace is viewed and how work is handled. In the future, it will become increasingly difficult for traditional companies to compete against those embracing the virtual office. Clearly, many considerations must factor into a decision by a company to implement a telecommuting program. However, companies that embrace the concept are sending out a loud message. They’re making it clear that they’re interested in their employees’ welfare, that they’re seeking a competitive edge, and that they aren’t afraid to rethink their work force for changing conditions. Those are the ingredients for future success.