PATHWAYS - Volume 8, Number 3 - August, 1996

Focus: The Changing Technological Worksite

Today, many organizations are turning to telecommuting as an alternative to maintaining centralized worksites. Over 10 million people telecommute, working some 40 hours or more per month away from the office at home, in hotels, airline executive suites, regional executive suites, and commercial "telecenters."

New, affordable computing and telecommunications technologies make it easier for organizations to accommodate the often conflicting demands of customers, employees, and corporate management. Telecommuting is no longer merely a "benefit" for the employee whom an organization cannot afford to lose. It has become a cost-effective, responsive way of doing business. In fact, the virtual office is redefining the corporate workplace.

At Issue: Telecommuting Issues and Guidelines

In the past we did most of our work at the office, carried work home when we had to, and sometimes struggled to get things done when on the road. Now, telecommuting technology makes it easier to do much of our work wherever we are: office, home, or at a remote location. To simplify our discussion of telecommuting here, we will be using two arbitrary but commonly accepted telecommuting concepts:

  • The home office

  • The virtual office

    The home office

    This concept has been around the longest, and is probably the most familiar. Managers often work at home to put together budgets or do long-range planning tasks they could not do effectively given the moment-by-moment interruptions in the central office. People with information-intensive job tasks - such as writers, programmers, artists, and architects often work at home, only appearing at the office for meetings and project reviews.

    The virtual office

    The virtual office - sometimes referred to as "mobile" or "satellite" office - is a more recent concept. Technology now makes it possible for people to work nearly anywhere they are needed, rather than where a management or support structure exists. They may work at a clients' facilities, in their favorite airline commuter club, or in their hotel room ... wherever it is immediately convenient for all concerned.

    Now let's look at telecommuting from two perspectives: the organization and the organizationís clients.

    The Organizational Perspective

    The following table lists a few of the many organizations using telecommuting, the work groups they have targeted, and some of the potential business benefits they have identified.

    Organization Work groups Business Justification for Telecommuting
    Consultants More responsive to client needs; better client contact; employee convenience
    HealthNet Training / documentation
    development group
    Reduced office space requirements; employee convenience
    IBM Sales force Increased and improved-quality customer contact; greater responsiveness to customer needs; reduced office space requirements
    consulting groups
    Better support of work which can only be performed at the client site
    Hewlett-Packard Software developers Reduced office space; employee convenience
    Sales force, customer service, maintenance More responsive to client needs; better client contact; reduced office space; employee convenience
    Prudential Insurance Claims processors, adjusters Reduced office space; opportunity to hire the handicapped; employee convenience
    Xerox Sales force, customer service, maintenance Increased and improved-quality customer contact; greater responsiveness to customer needs; reduced office space requirements

    For every potential benefit, of course, come certain trade-offs. For example, If salespeople needn't report daily to the central office, they should have more time and opportunity to meet with customers and prospects. But they won't be instantly available for unscheduled office management sessions. Similarly, reductions in the need for office space will only represent true cost savings for an organization if the space can be removed from overhead costs. If it is owned real estate, can it be leased to others? If rented, what long-term lease arrangements apply?

    Critical to the success of an organization's telecommuting business strategy are the potential effects on the organization and its employees. For some job positions, working away from the office or plant makes no business sense. Physical security personnel, for example, need to be on premises. For other positions, telecommuting makes eminent sense. It is important for organizations to select the jobs, work groups, and departments where telecommuting will benefit the organization.

    The organization that decides to try telecommuting also faces many policy and implementation decisions.

    • Should we try telecommuting on a small scale first, or commit to an organization-wide implementation from the start?

    • Which job positions will and should be affected?

    • How will we support telecommuting employees?
    • Will our telecommuters need data communications only within the organization, or will they need to be able to transfer files and data among customers and vendors?

    • How much should we budget for hardware and software?

    These issues (and many others) will need to be answered on a case-by-case basis. There is no one best way for all organizations.

    The Client Perspective

    Clients are likely to welcome telecommuting representatives if they perceive real benefits to their organization. For example, if you are a vendor providing a product or service, your client will be looking for reduced response time. Demonstrate this and your client is likely to accept your telecommuting representative or service person with open arms.

    Human Factors and Performance Support

    Depending upon how an organization's strategy is presented and implemented, telecommuting may meet with overwhelming support or insurmountable resistance. Recognizing and accommodating both human factors and performance support factors is critical to the successful implementation of telecommuting:

    Addressing the Human Factors

    Some employees welcome telecommuting, others are threatened, and a few simply can't or won't perform without direct supervision. On a case-by-case basis, management must address questions such as these:

    • Is the employee self-directed and able to work independently?

    • Is the employee receptive to telecommuting?

    • Are enough of the employee's job tasks compatible with telecommuting?

    • What training and other support will the employee require to perform effectively?
    • Does the employee being considered for work at home believe the physical space and other conditions there are amenable to telecommuting?

    • What financial and logistical support is the organization prepared to provide and what will the employee be expected to provide?

    Management also needs to have clear answers to the telecommuting employee's questions and concerns. They should anticipate issues such as these:

    • How often will I be working at home or remotely? When will I be expected to be available in the office?

    • What hardware, telecommunications, maintenance, and other support can I expect?

    • How will the organization keep me informed about what is going on?
    • Is this change career-limiting for me? How can I be sure that, because I am out of sight I am not also out of consideration?

    • How will this work situation affect my employee benefits and tax status?

    • How will my performance away from the office be evaluated?

    Home Office Telecommuting Support

    The following table lists some of the resources typically needed in the home office. Many organizations help the employee working at home by absorbing costs for some or all of the resources listed. This may benefit both parties. For example, if the organization provides telecommuting workers a portable "laptop" for use both at home and when in the office, there is no need to provide redundant systems at both locations.

    Home Office Equipment List

    • Office compatible computer platform and software

    • Fast modem (at least 28.8 bps) and telecommunications software

    • Printer
    • At least one extra phone line, preferably two

    • Fax machine or internal fax board

    • Speakerphone

    • Copier
    Note: The requirements shown here are typical, but will change depending on the home worker's job tasks.

    Virtual Office Telecommuting Support

    Management needs to select organizational units and functions that make sense. The most typical are sales, marketing, consulting, and customer support functions, but others may be appropriate in your organization.

    Critical to the success of the virtual office is a powerful, flexible, easy-to-use telecommunications facility. Communications processes and business software for use on the road ought to look as much like, and perform as much like those in the central office as possible.

    Equipment portability is also key. Once the novelty wears off, lugging a lap-top, a portable printer, a cellular phone, various power supplies, and spare batteries (not to mention luggage and briefcase) in and out of taxies, and off and on planes becomes a drag literally. Many organizations have found providing regional satellite offices preferable to asking the telecommuter to transport too much equipment. Satellite facilities typically provide work carrels, business phones, LAN and WAN network hook-ups, individual printers (or connections to shared printers), and other equipment found in the usual office. Most satellite facilities also provide conference rooms and lockers that can be permanently assigned or loaned out for a period of time. In many cities there now are businesses that provide similar lease facilities on an hourly or daily rental basis for telecommuters whose organizations are not large enough to afford their own satellite facilities.

    Performance Support

    For telecommuting to work, organizations need to give careful thought to documentation, training, and job support for their telecommuters. Too often organizations have expected their people to become telecommuters overnight, without providing adequate support. They have expected people who are accustomed to having office support staff suddenly to begin "doing their own thing." They have provided their telecommuters with a powerful suite of software tools, only to find after six months that many still hadn't learned to use the basic tools, let alone how to transfer files over a variety of data communications links.

    Training is critical. When an employee is working out of a hotel room in Philadelphia, he can't just whip down the hallway to Sue's office to review that trick she showed him for automatically aligning spreadsheet columns. Sue is 2000 miles away. Still, it makes little sense to have people work out of home or virtual offices, yet assemble at central sites for training. Here are a few suggestions for training and support:

    • Make policy changes, job aids, and brief user guides available as text files for easy downloading and local printing.

    • When monthly or quarterly meetings are held, plan brief sessions where staff members can show and describe how they are using telecommunications software to get their job done.
    • Include discretionary funds in the telecommuting budget for tutorials and local software training classes. Let telecommuting employees select the classes and tutorials that will best support them, nearby their work locations.

    • Make self-paced training packages available via corporate telecommunications channels or on the Internet.

    Concluding Comments

    Technology is changing our conception of the workplace. But the human factor is still critical to success. It still takes competent people in well-structured work environments to make organizations succeed.

    ©Copyright 1996 FLI, Incorporated
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