Historically, Americans have slavishly followed the corporate structure of working in an office and relaxing at home. In the 1980’s when computers begin to catch on so did the idea of a flexible work arrangement. In researching, one found that the implementation of telecommuting in the workforce has greatly improved the performance of businesses, increased employee satisfaction, and helped the environment. This research is based on historical data recorded from the 1990’s to present day in reference books, journals, and web based articles. This paper intends to expound on the ways telecommuting can be harmful or beneficial in the workplace.
Telecommuting refers to workers doing their jobs from home for part of each week and communicating with their office using computer technology. Telecommuting is growing in many countries and is expected to be common for most office workers in the coming decades. This paper will discuss the origins of telecommuting, define the term telecommuting, and predict the future of telecommuting in the U.S. How will society be affected by the growth of telecommuting? One will discuss the benefits and hindering aspects of telecommuting in the work place. Will companies save money initially and hurt their business in the future?
Often times before looking to the future it is helpful to glance at the past. States without labor laws relating to homework fall under the jurisdiction of the US Department of labor and its Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The work-at-home sourcebook by Lynie Arden discussed how the FLSA initially prohibited seven industries from using home workers. Congresswoman Olympia Snowe of Maine introduced the Home Employment Enterprise Act in the House of Representatives. Congresswoman Snowe told the House, “cottage industries play a vital role in the economy of the state of Maine, large parts of New England, and other areas of the nation. The independent nature of homework and the unavailability of alternative employment opportunities make working at home ideal. It is time to safeguard the freedom to choose to work at home” (Arden, 4).
Before the bill was voted on, prohibitions on industrial homework in five of six industries were lifted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1989. This along with Alvin Tofflers image of the electric cottage helped change the social construction of the workplace. Between 1980 and 1990 the annual consumption of personal computers rose by approximately 900 percent and expenditures on personal computers rose by 1100 percent (Biocca, 1993: 81). Professional occupations clutched onto the idea of using the computer as a space-flexible work tool.
Eventually a new identity was carved out for this employee niche as well. “People who work at home are enjoying a newfound respectability. In the early 1980s, many executives shied away from being called home workers. But it is now increasingly accepted behavior. With this acceptance the identity of home workers has changed” (Braus, 1993a: 42). Respectability as a computer operator, according to this view, has been regained and has been transferred into the home as well as in the office.
Ann McLaughlin, Secretary of Labor, said “Workforce flexibility is a critical element of our effort to create jobs, enhance the quality of work life for American workers and improve our competitive edge in the world markets. The changing workforce demographics demand that we provide employment opportunities that allow workers the freedom to choose flexible alternatives including the ability to work in one’s own home” (Arden, 5). Politicians with foresight were in tune with the coming change and the introduction of telecommuting into the workforce world.
Many people define a telecommuter as anyone who works outside of a traditional office, whether at home, in a satellite office, or even out of a car. The Midway Institute for telecommuting education, a group that consults with businesses by conducting feasibility studies and implementation seminars, defined telecommuting as “an off-site work arrangement and that permits employees to work in or near their homes for all or part of the work week. Thus they commute to work by telephone and other telecommunications equipment rather than by car or transit” (Shaw, 6).
Telecommuters can work from home, work from a telework center, or use a concept called hoteling. When working from home employees may have a home office that may contain the same kind of equipment that you get in a central office. Telework centers are typically satellite offices located some distance from the company’s main office. Telework centers have an advantage over home offices in that technology and computer equipment can be shared rather than purchased separately for each telecommuter. Telecommuting employees work a couple of days a week from the telework center on a rotating basis, ensuring that computer terminals and workstations are in constant use. Equipment in home offices lies dormant when the telecommuter comes to work at the main office.
Hoteling is a form of telecommuting used most often by sales staff who don’t need a fixed desk in an office, but must have somewhere once a week to pick up mail, plug into the company’s main database, or meet a client. This employee may check in an office in the north of a region one week, using a vacant desk or conference room for a couple of hours, and telecommute from the southern part of the region the next week. These three kinds of telecommuting are defined by location and structure.
Telecommuting can have a downside and is not for everyone. Some people feel isolated without the regular social contact of the office and find it difficult to be motivated. Other obstacles include not being able to stop working at the end of the day, being distracted by the refrigerator or TV, and friends and family that don’t respect work time.
There is no direct supervision of teleworkers, which could cause diminished productivity. The remote access needs of telecommuters could cause a security issue depending on the nature of the business. Sometimes removing the presence of a very positive or knowledgeable employee out of the office to telecommute could affect the morale of other team members (Career Builder).
There are several reasons why employees and employers are thinking about telecommuting. The number one reason for employees is that people have begun to see that work isn’t everything. They want to be better integrated with work and personal lives, and telecommuting is one way to free up more time. Other reasons include the desire to break through the glass ceiling, increased job stability, or just dislike for the traditional corporate structure.
Telework give companies another avenue to do their part with reducing air pollution and being compliant with the Clean Air Act mandated by the federal government. One of the largest sources of pollution is the automobile. In heavy traffic automobiles are moving slower and causing even more problem to our environment. In most cities construction is taking place on roads to increase the size to help with this problem, but an even better solution is to encourage people who can to telecommute, so we will not need additional highways, parking lots, and airports in the future.
Companies can enhance their recruiting efforts because they are not limited to hiring employees in a specific geographic area. Telecommuting helps companies achieve savings with real estate costs and overhead (Career Builder). Companies can grow without the need to create additional workstations or build new office spaces. The option to telecommute eliminates the number of employees who resign because they want or need to move to a new location.
It is predicted that telecommuting will become an increasingly popular work option in many businesses and industries, and its usage is expected to increase in the future due to new innovations in computer and communication technology. This trend is driven by several factors. Linda Shaw, author of Telecommute! Go to Work without Leaving Home, wrote that “the labor pool of employees with specific talents will shrink, making employers more willing to make concessions to keep valued employees happy. A smaller labor pool combined with an increasing demand for highly skilled laborers has fueled employee-driven change in working environments. Scarce, highly skilled workers have begun to demand more flexible work arrangements, especially as they choose to live farther and farther from their employers” (Shaw 18).
Shaw and other observers also note demographic changes within the American work force as a factor in the growth of telecommuting. These analysts contend that new generations of workers are less willing to sacrifice time with family than their counterparts of previous eras. This desire to spend more time at home and avoid long commutes is advertized as a key factor in making telecommuting an attractive benefit. Finally, new technologies have made working from home a viable alternative. With the advent of high speed modems, fax machines, voice mail, powerful personal computers, electronic mail, and cell phones to name a few, workers can now perform their jobs without losing touch with employers and customers.
We are on the edge of a new era of telecommunications that will impact our lives and how we work and how we become productive in the 21st century. Society will be enhanced with workers that are happy with their work and life balance, the environment will be made better and companies that invest time in their telecommuters will continue to help their bottom line. Telecommuting may prove to be an effective means to enhance our lives and improve our productivity on this new frontier and I conclude that the strategy should be to find ways to enhance the capabilities for future telecommuters.
Courtney from Study Moose
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