Overcoming the Challenges of Telecommuting to Work
It’s pretty widely accepted that employees value having the option to work from home when they need to. For decades now, more and more companies have been allowing their employees to telecommute to work. Many of our team members work remotely from across the state and even from across the country. That’s part of who we are as a technology company: we use advancements in technology to make telecommuting more beneficial. But telecommuting isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every organization. We have pulled together a simple guide to determine if you or your company are suited for telecommuting, and how best to overcome the challenges associated with it.
What is Telecommuting?
Telecommuting has tons of different names: remote work, telework, networking, or working from home to name only a few. What’s more, each has a slightly varied definition. We like the term telecommuting, and our definition is pretty simple: putting in your normal work hours to complete your designated work tasks at a location that isn’t the office. Most often that would be your home, but it could be just about anywhere.
At Wildcard, for example, less than half the company normally works at the the headquarters office. Many of the others work out of another office located some 60 linear miles away. They may be working in an office, but it isn’t the same location as the rest of their colleagues, so this could also be considered a kind of telecommuting. The rest of our employees work primarily from their homes in other parts of the state or across the country. That kind of telecommuting presents arguably the biggest challenges, but also an opportunity for the greatest benefits.
Is Telecommuting Right for you?
I’m sure you’re going to love this answer: it all depends.
In the process of researching this topic, I ran across a study by E. Glenn Dutcher (2012) involving students and something like a simulated telecommuting experience. The study determined that some types of jobs are better suited for telecommuting than others.
The experiment involved putting students in both a lab environment and a place outside the lab and asking them to perform two different jobs: a dull job, and a creative job. They found that students doing tasks resembling data entry were more productive in the lab than they were outside it. But students doing creative tasks were more productive outside the lab than inside it. So whether or not you are suited for telecommuting may depend on how creative you need to be at your job.
That’s why telecommuting works so well for our company. Nearly all of our work requires creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. In software development, you have to solve problems with creative solutions. Our designers create thoughtful wireframes and print designs, and our writers create new ways to tell our stories. It’s hard for me to come up with someone who doesn’t do highly creative work at Wildcard. If you have a job description like this, telecommuting might be a viable option for you to enhance your productivity.
Whether or not employees are suited to telecommute also depends on the organization they work for. Allowing telecommuting requires careful planning and forethought. If your employer doesn’t have a good plan in place, they wouldn’t be doing you any favors by allowing you to telecommute. Chances are, the experience wouldn’t be successful. And the employer has to be open to a telecommuting policy in the first place. Many still aren’t, even though the evidence suggests there is little to be concerned about.
Benefits of Telecommuting
1. Telecommuting is Desirable
There are a lot of great things that can happen for a company and its employees if telecommuting is done right. The job market is teeming with potential employees who are looking for an opportunity to telecommute, or at least have the option available. In a review of dozens of related articles, Madsen (2011) discovered the majority of research indicates that simply allowing the option for telecommuting may increase overall job satisfaction among employees. So people who could telecommute, automatically enjoy their jobs more than those who could not.
Madsen also found that “productivity, morale, and organizational commitment were perceived to have been positively influenced by telework.” By giving employees more control over how they work, employees are generally happier, and more committed to doing quality work.
2. Work/Life Balance
A great benefit for an employee is the opportunity for a more desirable work/life balance. If you have children, or some other family obligations, telecommuting makes it possible to be there for your children during the day and still get your work done. It also gives you an opportunity to take care of small chores around the house—like folding laundry or washing dishes—during a few short breaks throughout the day. This alone could account for higher rates of productivity.
Think back to the creative tasks vs. dull tasks study from above. Creative tasks often require the worker to step back from the computer and think a little bit. You can take your mind off your work for a few moments throughout the day to do mundane chores instead of sitting blankly in front of your screen hoping inspiration will strike. For me, inspiration strikes most when I’m in the shower. As a result (often much to the chagrin of my wife, who says I think too much) I take long showers, hoping to come up with my next great idea.
3. Reduced Absences
As an employer, having telecommuters can also cut down on absenteeism, since it’s easier for your employees to work around whatever it is they needed to do that day. But if your employees need to take a day off anyway, don’t sweat it. The increased productivity from working out of the office should make up for that. This is one of those win-win scenarios.
4. Environmentally Friendly
There are also environmental benefits as well, especially if you have to drive long distances to get to work everyday. Think about how much gas you use just going to and from work. Much of that could be eliminated through telecommuting. Not only can you make a positive impact on the environment, but you can save yourself money on fuel and vehicle wear and tear, too.
Not only does it save money for the employee, but also for the employer. If you have 10 employees exclusively telecommuting, you don't need that extra office suite anymore, which means you don't have to keep the lights turned on, and you don't need to keep heating and cooling it. It might not seem like a huge savings, but over a long period of time, it adds up. With reduced power consumption, the environment will surely thank you as well.
Challenges of Telecommuting and How to Overcome Them
Even though there are some really great benefits, when you telecommute, it can get a lot more complicated than that. I’ve put together some of the challenges you may run into, but more importantly, I’ve given you some techniques you can use to overcome those challenges.
1. Security Concerns
As an employer, there are always security concerns. What if your telecommuting employee has their laptop stolen, potentially leaking sensitive information out to the public? Homes are often not as secure as offices, so it is certainly a possibility.
To address these concerns, you should consider taking steps to secure the employees’ work computers and drives. Encryption and backups are key here. If something does get stolen, having another layer of security can keep your data out of the wrong hands long enough to change passwords or locate your device. As an employer, you should also set security guidelines for telecommuters’ homes. This could mean a home security system requirement, surveillance, or even just a policy about keeping doors and windows locked. It should be a policy that you and your employee can both agree on. It just matters that one is in place.
2. Staying in Touch
Another concern is keeping an open line of communication. This is really a multi-tiered concern with a lot of possible challenges involved. With telecommuters, it’s not as easy to just run down the hall and ask a question anymore. This can lead to a lapse in coordination and productivity monitoring from the employer’s perspective.
As an employee, it can also be difficult to be isolated from the normal ebb and flow of the office environment. We are social creatures who need interactions with other humans. For some, an instant messenger just isn’t enough to sate this requirement. You might also find that much of the offhand quips you and your co-workers once made to each other have dwindled since you started telecommuting, because now most of your interactions happen during scheduled meetings.
Fortunately there is no shortage of options of new technologies out there to help keep lines of communication open for telecommuters. There is email, instant messenger apps, video conferencing apps, or a good old fashioned telephone call. Most everyone has all of these features in their pocket these days, so it is easier than ever to stay in touch with your employees. Having as many of these options available as you can will hopefully keep everyone comfortable.
According to Madsen, the research shows that people who telecommute “may actually require more communication with their supervisors than in-office employees.” The important thing to note is that supervisors should make a point to check up on their telecommuting employees more often than they think they need to, just to make sure everyone is on the same page and to keep your employees from feeling isolated. You could even set aside agreed upon times each week to make phone calls to your telecommuting employees.
3. Tech Support
Now, what happens when something breaks? We all use technology, and a lot of us understand very little of it. It changes almost every day. We learn how to launch everything we need when we come in in the morning, and our tasks don’t often go beyond that. But when something goes wrong, and you are working from 100 miles away, you can’t just call IT and have them come down to help you. And if something really breaks, that could mean an extra trip into the office to get something replaced, or a couple days in the mail. That could be a crippling time-waster.
There’s only so much you can do to prevent hardware malfunctions. But understanding that fact is most of the challenge. If you can prepare for possible malfunctions and have a help system in place, this challenge isn’t massively difficult to navigate. Try to get one step ahead of the technology. If you know you are going to need a battery replaced on your laptop, let your company know right away so you can get a replacement before you really need it. And keep your supervisor appraised if something isn’t acting right, no matter how small it seems. There’s only so much you can do, but being prepared for anything is wise.
4. How Much Work is Happening?
This next worry is kind of two-tiered. On one hand, employees are concerned that in pursuit of a more desirable work/life balance, they will end up spending more time working and less time living, since the lines of work and home are blurred. Employers on the other hand have a different worry: that their employees won’t work enough. This stems from the difficulty to monitor their employees’ productivity to ensure they are getting their work done.
If you’re an employer, you can solve this problem by setting specific milestones that your employees need to meet each day or each week. If they can meet these milestones, you know they are staying on task.
Ultimately it’s about trust on both sides. As an employer, allowing your employees to telecommute places a lot of trust in them, and they are placing a lot of trust in you that they won’t be unnecessarily monitored. Making this fact clear right away can help build a solid foundation of mutual respect, which can go a long way. An effective technique is to have employees earn the opportunity to telecommute through high productivity, and then maintain it while they telecommute.
What to Take Away
It’s really all about the plan. You have to know what you are dealing with from the very beginning, both as the telecommuting employee, and as the employer. As long as you have a plan in place and an understanding on both sides, you can take steps to minimize all of the potential challenges of telecommuting. Understand that you are going to take on any challenges that arise together, and your employee/employer relationship will thrive.
Dutcher, E. Glenn. "The Effects Of Telecommuting On Productivity: An Experimental Examination. The Role Of Dull And Creative Tasks." Journal Of Economic Behavior & Organization 84.1 (2012): 355-363.
Giberson, Tom, and Suzanne Miklos. "Weighing In On Telecommuting." TIP: The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist 51.2 (2013): 163-166.
Madsen, Susan R. "The Benefits, Challenges, And Implications Of Teleworking: A Literature Review." Culture & Religion Review Journal 2011.1 (2011): 148-158.