Telecommuting (September 12, 2008)

Employer, Employee Relationship

Companies may consider offering telecommuting to retain and attract employees as well as reduce carbon emissions by decreasing or eliminating the need for traveling to an office. One of the driving forces for companies to offer telecommuting is so they can retain quality workers who want flexibility to be with their families. Many employers do not care when the employee completes their work, just so that the work is completed; hours become less important, while results become more important. Many employers can get hung up on whether an employee came to work at 8:01 or 8:10; it may not be important if the employee gets his or her work completed.

If a company would like to test telecommuting, some suggest creating a pilot program by offering part-time telecommuting to current employees who the company believes will succeed. Start employees gradually by working half the time at home and half the time in their current office. Some people miss the social interaction with co-workers; even branch office employees can feel the same isolation. Hold employees in the pilot program responsible for the same outcome measures as regular employees, which will allow an employer to measure effectiveness and outcomes.

Many employers will draft a contract with the employee so he or she will know the costs associated with telecommuting as well as an employer’s output expectations. A company may prefer the employee devote a specific amount of space in their home toward his or her office and to use this space solely for related business.

The background noise associated with working from home does not seem to turn off clients; telecommuting is so common it has become acceptable. Also some employees prefer to dress in work attire when working from home to keep them on task.

Many companies use VPN to dial in where web browsers connect to a headquartered server. In some instances the employee pays for the cable connection for a VPN connection to the company’s server, but uses a corporate owned laptop. There may be an opportunity for many sites with a small amount of users to start a cooperative to combine their buying power in order to negotiate lower connection fees for their employees.

Technology now offers low-cost ways for telecommuters to maintain the same work extension at home by forwarding their calls to their cell phones. It is important to some companies with part-time telecommuters to always be in the same location.
On the other hand, full-time telecommuters may decrease the need for office space. One location decreased their office capacity from 18 sites to 15 sites resulting in significant annual overhead cost savings.

Security

There doesn’t seem to be any unique security concerns relating to telecommuting. There is likely the same amount of risk whether the employee is at work or at home. Some company’s have clauses in the employee’s contract covering information security. In addition digital rights can be assigned to specific files in case an employee resigns and the employer wants to restrict access after he or she leaves employment.

Staying Connected

It is extremely important to offer employees the right tools to allow for easy communication. Depending on the communication needed, telecommuters may use instant messaging, land-line phones, cell phones or e-mail.

Skype offers an opportunity for a business to lower their telephone costs associated with telecommuting. It can be used for traveling telecommuters who need to call in to the home office. One company was able to save $20,000 per month by using Skype. It can also be used for conference calling, and is described as the most useful service for international calling. Related telecommunication savings solutions are offered by companies like COBITE and Vonage.

Some conference call users suggest keeping participants to a minimum. When there are too many sites to keep track of on a conference call it is easy for one site to control the conversation and minimize feedback from others. Moderators are key to facilitating communication from all participants. Some business find it helpful to have a policy that if some of the people invited to the conference call are in the same building, have them call in separately anyway so that none of the participants have a face-to-face advantage or side conversations. While on the other hand, a company may want to give an international client additional time between topics to have side conversations in their own language to make sure everything is understood and no further questions remain.

Instant messaging is a great tool when an employee would like an instant answer. Some companies use iChat on Mac and there doesn’t seem to be any security concerns.

Time Management

Today it seems there are more things to do with less time and telecommuting has been a way for some employees to get away from the office to get work done more efficiently. Some employees work better without some of the distractions that may be in an office.

There’s an assumption sometimes that telecommuting lets employees get away with not doing much work, but most telecommuting employees will tell you that they work more telecommuting than when they reported to work in the traditional office environment. It all depends on an employee’s work ethic, some people need the structure of set office hours, while others may be present at the office and unproductive.

University of Akron Telecommuting Trends

Many professors telecommute already, by being able to dial in remotely to access their work information from home. Many only come in to teach class and offer office hours.

The College of Business hasn’t had much success at distance learning; it requires a significant amount of resources in order to make it successful. This hasn’t affected enrollment yet, it has increased significantly in 2008.

International Issues

At times there are barriers to communicating with international clients using conference calling. Cultural social norms specific to their region may encourage clients to answer in ways that tell you they understand when actually they do not. It is very helpful to develop the habit of always following up international communications with some form of written communication. International clients often get a clearer message from reading and listening.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable real-time translation software solutions available. Current products often miss local dialect nuances. Similarly, video conferencing at this time seems to be slow and unreliable for effective communication.

Northeast Ohio

Some may view Northeast Ohio as less open to telecommuting, but really it may come down to what business problems need to be solved. In Los Angeles and other large urban cities, corporations have had to be more creative and likely do not have the same retention issues. It seems other cities offer telecommuting to attract talent.

Tax Implications

Since each telecommuting case is unique it is suggested that a professional tax advisor be consulted before assuming it is safe to include a deduction for a home office to your itemized tax deductions. There are tests that the IRS uses in order to determine if this cost is deductible. These types of deductions are frequently audited.

Generation X

A lot of young, new employees are hired in with expectations of flexible work hours and want to use their own computers for work purposes. Newer companies may be more accepting of these expectations.

This summary was prepared by Sara Lucas, The University of Akron