Real Work at Home
Almost one million people in Canada did some or all of their work at home in 2000. By 2003, that number had risen to 1.3 million. There are expected to be almost 2 million (about 13% of the Canadian work force) by 2008, according to a June 2004 Gartner Dataquest survey!
What are the consequences for business? How does an ‘at-home’ workforce or even individual worker differ from the traditional worker in a central location?
There are many advantages for both the worker and the employer with a decentralized workforce. For the worker there is less commuting, with savings in time, stress and expense. There are also great advantages to the employer — not only is it expensive to provide office space for an employee, but an employee in a home office arrives at his office calm, relaxed and ready to work.
A disadvantage is that the worker must give up a portion of his home for an office — not an insignificant hardship, especially if he is ‘at capacity’ in his home. Also, it takes significant discipline to learn to work in a home environment, so that the employee works as well as he would in an office. While there are distractions in the home office, he does not have the same distractions as in a conventional office, such as noisy coworkers and chatty neighbours.
I have worked in a home office for fifteen years. Initially I dressed in jacket and tie, but after some months, just going into my home office put me into the right frame of mind. However, I know of others who found the distractions of being at home too great. For myself, I find that I put in longer hours of work with less distraction. I am able to concentrate on a project with less interruption. Despite spending considerably more time ‘in the office’, I also find I have more time with my family. The difference is the unproductive time that had been spent commuting, and that is no loss.
Another advantage is decreased absenteeism. A conventional office employee who is too sick to come in to work may just stay at home, unproductive. A telecommuter is less likely to feel too sick to work, when he just has to walk down the hall. Additionally, a telecommuter cannot spread his illness to other workers, thus preventing an ‘epidemic’ of similar illnesses. I know of colleagues who worked in their home offices while recovering from major surgery!
Studies show that workers who telecommute are much less likely to change employers and are more satisfied in their jobs. It is estimated that up to three dollars are saved for every dollar spent on a telecommuting program. There are less tangible benefits such as disaster prevention programs — a distributed, telecommuting workforce is less affected by a localized disaster.
How do you manage a remote workforce that may be dispersed across your entire business region? As mentioned above, it is not for everyone. For those who can adapt, it takes trust on both sides.
The employer has to trust that the employee is getting his work done. One of my previous managers told me that he could either trust me or fire me, because he certainly could not keep track of me!
The employee must trust his superiors as well, that he is being kept informed as to the situation within his company. Telecommuters may feel isolated from happenings with their own employer. It is hard to make the adjustment from hearing all the news in the company cafeteria, to having to actively seek out news. I am a great believer in communication — free flow of information is essential to any business. Therefore, I spend much time deliberately reaching out to my remote colleagues. This can be as important as any other business-related communication, because whatever business we are in, ultimately we deal with people, and relationships are essential.
Many large companies are moving more of their workforce to telecommuting just for the advantages listed above. Examples include Bell Canada, IBM, the Canadian government, Nortel and the Bank of Canada. These organizations have saved money while getting happier employees — and I can certainly testify to the “happier employees” part!
Freelance writer Dan Davies can be reached at [email protected]