The Pros and Cons of Telecommuting
While the COVID-19 lockdowns may seem like the beginning of the work-from-home era, there is a much longer history of employees and organisations navigating the pros and cons of telecommuting – stretching all the way back to the 1970s.
As the nature of work and the workplace continues to evolve, more employees and the companies they work for are transitioning from a “work-from-home by necessity” way of operating to deciding what kind of WFH or telecommuting arrangements work best for them.
Continue reading to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting for staff and businesses.
What is telecommuting?
Telecommuting is the practice of working from a location other than your employer’s office – usually home – and using technology like the internet, email and phone to access work systems and communicate with coworkers. Today, telecommuting is more commonly referred to as working from home, WFH or working remotely.
The growth of telecommuting
In the highly-digital world of many businesses today, the requirement to be “in the office” and present diminishes with every new piece of technology. Once upon a time, it was not possible to have a meeting unless invitees were present and sitting around a table. With teleconferencing and video-conferencing, staff can be scattered across the world and still be available to meet.
While the internet has made telecommuting on a large scale much more possible, the term was actually coined in 1972 by NASA engineer Jack Niles, who was working remotely at the time. The practice remained fairly rare back then, but continued to grow through the early 1980s as people began to realise the many possibilities that working at home offered.
By 1989, management experts like Peter Drucker were declaring the obsolescence of commuting to offices. Throughout the 1990s, telecommuting continued to grow again as industries involving advanced technology rose to importance.
In current times, there are many staff members in a variety of industries who are now able to telecommute to work – not just managers and executives, as was previously common. The advent of highly-technical positions and new technologies make it a widely acknowledged and implemented tool for small businesses and big corporations.
Then in March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions forced vast quantities of workers to work from home. The abruptness and sheer scale of this WFH transition shone a spotlight on the pros and cons of telecommuting, igniting debates that continue even now.
Here are some of the key advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting, both for businesses and their employees.
Benefits of telecommuting
There are many advantages to telecommuting, both from the perspective of business owners or executives, and from employees themselves.
Benefits to businesses
Benefits that businesses may access by implementing a telecommuting policy include.
Wider global reach
When a business is looking for someone with a particular skill set, interest or even personality, it can be hard to find exactly what you are looking for in a small area. Telecommuting gives businesses the opportunity to look for specific people and make them a part of their organisation, regardless of previously insurmountable barriers such as location or language.
Stronger talent retention
For some businesses, offering telecommuting opportunities to their staff allows them to retain the services of talented individuals who know and love the brand but may need to move to more flexible hours or relocate for personal reasons. Prior to telecommuting, organisations had to let good staff go. Now, businesses can keep talented staff onboard for longer thanks to more flexibility.
There are plenty of cost savings to be found in allowing telecommuting opportunities to employees. A report in 2013 showed that businesses can save as much as $11,000 per employee – and this money can then be spent on other costs, such as product research or content development.
Benefits to employees
For employees, the benefits are slightly different but equally appealing.
The majority of employees feel more efficient and effective when they are away from ringing phones, distracting colleagues or other minimal interruptions. Telecommuting allows many employees to work within their own focused situation, responding to emergency situations when required.
Telecommuting will largely mean that it is not entirely necessary for employees to maintain a standard 9 to 5 workday like many office-based roles. For employees with life commitments, such as family or study, the flexibility of telecommuting is a major added bonus to a role – one that’s likely to make them more loyal to a company or organisation.
Employees can spend an hour getting ready every morning, and sometimes as much as an hour commuting into the office – that’s two hours gone before the work day has even begun. Telecommuting allows workers to start their day immediately, which can help productivity and reduce stress from time pressures.
Disadvantages of telecommuting
As there are advantages to telecommuting for both businesses and employees, there are also disadvantages – or at least challenges to overcome – for both parties.
Disadvantages for businesses
Some of the negatives that businesses may notice when implementing a telecommuting policy can include the following.
The major issue that businesses have with telecommuting is the lack of supervision that executives and managers can offer over staff they have working from another location. There are very few ways to guarantee that employees are working the hours that they are required to, which is a risk for some businesses. A lack of supervision can also lead to a drop in work quality.
Culture is a big part of what makes employers great – including the way in which they treat their employees, reward effort, foster collaboration and motivate performance.
When you don’t have employees in one site, on one timezone, it makes it difficult for your staff to feel included or feel like part of a team. This can be detrimental to both their work ethic and commitment to your product or cause.
Even with modern technology such as smartphones, video conferencing and instant messaging software like Slack, it can be easy for messages to get lost in translation between managers and remote employees. Some businesses may find that relying on technology to communicate with their employees does not suit their purposes. This can often be overcome by understanding the importance of nonverbal communication in a digital world.
Disadvantages for employees
For employees working remotely, there are a couple of major challenges that may cause issues or uncertainty when it comes to telecommuting.
If, as a remote employee, you have technological issues and can’t connect into a crucial meeting or submit a key document, there is often no back-up. This can make some employees feel uncomfortable – a lack of support and a high level of accountability can be a daunting prospect for someone with little access to advice or assistance from their superiors.
Generally, people believe that working flexible hours will make for a better work-life balance. For some remote employees, however, they find the opposite is true – working from home can upset that important work-life balance because the temptation is always there to look at one more issue, or check your emails one more time. Workaholics are likely to struggle to pull themselves away – and that can lead to several health issues.
Employees who work within an office environment are able to access a variety of resources and insights from other employees when dealing with a problem or situation. When working remotely, it may be harder to make contact with someone or acquire the knowledge needed. This can lead to errors or additional pressure for employees.
With flexibility, telecommuting has many benefits
Allowing employees to telecommute can often have many advantages of requiring them to work from an office all the time. But at the same time it’s not a magic bullet. Telecommuting can raise challenges of its own. When these challenges are dealt with effectively, both employees and the businesses they work for stand to benefit.
Does your business allow staff to telecommute? Let us know in the comments what advantages or disadvantages of telecommuting you’ve seen in your own organisation.
This article was written by Simone Ball on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources have been used to prepare this article: Huffington Post, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Richard Male and Groove HQ.
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