Telecommuting is the ability for an employee to complete work assignments from outside the traditional workplace by using telecommunications tools such as email, phone, chat and video apps. The pervasive growth of the Internet, along with advancements in unified communications (UC), artificial intelligence and robotics has made it easier than ever for many work-related tasks to be performed outside the normal workplace. Knowledge workers are especially well-suited for working from home or other remote locations. Jobs that require the physical operation of special equipment, including vehicles, are not well-suited for telecommuting.
When an employee telecommutes to work more often than they physically visit the office, they may also be referred to as a remote worker. This distinction can be important in some countries because the word “remote” implies that the employee lives outside a reasonable commuting distance from their employer and may therefore be subject to different tax and legal requirements.
Telecommuting can have a variety of benefits for both individual employees and the company they work for. Some of these benefits include:
- Employees have a more flexible work schedule since they can work at their own pace without pressure.
- Employees may not have to deal with common workplace distractions.
- With less transportation costs, workers can save more money. Additionally, less time spent commuting gives more time to be productive.
- Higher productivity. With a more flexible schedule, and less workplace distractions and not having to deal with transportation, telecommuting workers can be more productive.
- Increases employee autonomy and loyalty.
- Better work life balance for employees.
- Can save an organization money, considering real estate and other overhead expenses.
Telecommuting also benefits the planet. Fewer workers needing to travel means less carbon-dioxide emissions. According to research by Global Workplace Analytics in 2019, if those who could work remotely telecommute, even just 50% of the time, it would equal the equivalent of removing all of New York State’s workforce off the road. This is because 29% of greenhouse gas emissions originate from transportation sectors.
While telecommuting can boast many benefits, it can also be the source of some challenges. Some downsides, for example, include:
- Less personal and social contact with managers and coworkers.
- The worker may have more distractions at home, reducing productivity.
- Employers can’t control how workers will make use of their time.
- IT-related issues may be more difficult to deal with.
- Managers may find it more difficult to supervise employees.
- Telecommuting could mean reduced security for the organization.
Telecommuting can also have a positive impact on finance for both employers and employees. The employee will not have to spend money each week on transportation and other incidentals such as parking. The employer is likely to see increased productivity, as well as reduced absenteeism, turnover and real estate costs.
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Should a disaster occur -- such as flooding or earthquake -- an organization with an established telecommuting framework can potentially gain a competitive advantage by being able to continue operations during the crisis.
Team management best practices
To enable effective telecommuting policies, a manager should maintain a list of best practices when it comes to management strategies. An example set of best practices include:
- A manager should be breeding an environment of trust, especially trust that employees are working.
- Manage by outcome. The thought of an employee telecommuting can be concerning because of productivity; however, managers should only be concerned about productivity if an employee gets is not fulling the same roles as they would while in the office.
- Teamwork is still important. Managers should treat teamwork as a group activity.
- Make time to meet in person as a team to continue a strong sense of community.
- Include telecommuters in meetings and events.
- Accommodate flexible work schedules -- as many employees may see telecommuting as being a significant benefit or privilege.
- Be clear and concise about expectations. Ensuring every worker knows what is expected of them when telecommuting is important. Knowing what meetings they need to attend, what work needs to be completed when and other important tasks that need to be punctual are important in ensuring employees stay on task.
- Have the right technology to support telecommuting. Ensuring that technology and software are accessible and easy to use will promote more communication between team members -- whether that technology is email, screen sharing software, conference lines, document sharing software or other services.
- Ensure communication is simple. Managers should support using accessible communication technology for all team members. Employees should be able to have a quick line of connections to ask any questions or communicate with other team members if needed.
- IT support. Managers should also ensure that telecommuters have access to the organization’s IT team for any device or software failures. Telecommuters are dependent on the proper functioning of their technology to communicate, get work done and to complete most other tasks.
The technology used to support telecommuting may differ depending on the industry, however, there are some general software products that will be useful in many telecommuting settings. For example, Google G Suite, a business version of Google Drive, has a grouping of software that includes Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. Zoom is also currently a popular application for video conferencing. Zoom supports both screen sharing and video calls. Slack is a good example of a popular chatting app employees can use to stay in touch and up to date with information. Workers can also use to keep track of and schedule meetings.
Using a combination of these applications can enable an organization to shift to a telecommute-friendly company. The options of available vendors may change depending on what an organization needs. For example, voice over IP and unified communications as a service (UCaaS) vendors include 8x8, Dialpad, LogMeIn's GoToMeeting, RingCentral and Zoom. Organizations that may need to use may use products such as Amazon Workspaces, IBM Cloud, Cisco VXI or RedHat Virtualization.
Working remotely vs. telecommuting
Telecommuting and working remotely are near-synonyms and may often be conflated with one another. However, the distinction lies in distance. Remote work implies that the employee lives outside the geographic area of the organization’s location. Meanwhile, telecommuting indicates that the employee is close enough to the organization so they can, at least part-time, work on-site. An organization can have a group of employees telecommuting from a moderate distance or could have a group of employees remote working from all over the globe.