of the Remote Work Environment on Organizations and Employees
IBM Adjunct Professor Of Leadership - 02/23/98
Until a few years ago, most professionals
commuted to their company's office location in order to perform their
job functions. As information technology has become more prevalent
in businesses, and as employees have become more comfortable using
technology tools such as personal computers, electronic mail, video
and teleconferencing, this practice has changed. Instead of employees
spending valuable work time traveling to and from corporate and client
offices, many companies are establishing the infrastructure and operations
to support them working remotely, which includes: telecommuting 1,
virtual workplaces 2,
and mobility 3.
It is estimated that approximately 10% of
the US workforce, or 11 million people telecommute. Industry analysts
expect these numbers to grow 20% annually, so that by the year 2000,
20 million workers will telecommute. In addition to telecommuters,
roughly 23% of the current US working population are mobile workers.
This number is also expected to increase at a rate comparable to telecommuters.
Although the literature on remote work covers
a wide range of topics, this paper focuses on: advantages and disadvantages
of remote work for companies and their employees, organizational considerations
to ensure remote work outcomes are successful, and remote work policy
issues for the private and public sector.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Remote
Work for Companies and Their Employees
Remote work environments have been around
long enough to begin collecting information about the advantages and
disadvantages for both the company and its remote employees.
One advantage to remote work for companies
is related to recruiting. Many companies use remote work as a perk
to attract and retain top talent. In fact, some employees regard telecommuting
as "an indirect raise." 5 Especially
parents of young children, people with eldercare responsibilities
and dual career families who find remote work attractive because flexibility
in work schedules and shorter (or zero) travel times frees time for
family activities and responsibilities.
Remote work also expands the labor pool.
For example, relocation is not always necessary when changing jobs
or companies. Therefore, companies are able to recruit talented employees
outside of their corporate office's geographical boundaries. In addition,
recruiting physically challenged employees may become easier since
telework eliminates the commuting barriers.
Employers who offer this alternative work
arrangement have reported a 20% 6
increase in employee productivity due to less time spent commuting,
less disruptions as a result of office politics, employees tailoring
their work day according to peak productive times, and more continuous
work time. Reduced absenteeism contributes to this productivity increase
because remote employees are able to tailor their day to accommodate
their work tasks and personal responsibilities. For example, a remote
worker may start the work day an hour earlier because he/she has a
10 AM dentist appointment. In the traditional environment, the employee
might have gone directly to the dentist from home without going into
the office, thereby losing an hour or two of productive work. Or a
remote employee suffering from a minor ailment such as a cold is likely
to continue performing his/her job functions at home. In the traditional
work environment, the employee might have called in sick to avoid
infecting his/her co-workers.
Another advantage is the ability for companies
to provide 24 hour customer support. Customer Service Reps (CSR's)
can be equipped to take calls from home regardless of the company's
walk-in office hours. Furthermore, companies are able to provide local,
on-site support for geographically dispersed customers by allowing
employees to live and work near their clients despite the company's
home office location.
A fourth advantage to remote work is cost
reduction. The amount of formal office space and associated furniture
and other equipment is less because employees can share workspace
when visiting the home office. In addition, relocation costs, estimated
at $80,000 per employee ,
7 can be avoided if employees are not required to move to be
co-located with the job, but rather are allowed to perform the job
task from their current home location. And business travel and commuting
costs are also less since employees are equipped to work electronically
with teammates, thereby requiring fewer face-to-face meetings.
The estimates and predictions concerning
telecommuting and mobility cited earlier, indicate an increase in
the popularity of remote work. Although there are clear benefits to
transition to this new work mode, several disadvantages have also
First, employees are prone to work longer
hours than non-remote employees because they are reachable (electronic
mail, paging, cellular phones and voice mail) anywhere, anytime by
colleagues, managers and clients. It has been argued that employees
working longer hours is the factor that contributes to the 20% rise
in employee productivity discussed earlier. Regardless of the factors,
the company benefits from this increased productivity, whereas longer
work hours may infringe upon the employee's personal time. Therefore,
it is imperative that remote employees explicitly define and adhere
to their job and home life rules and routines so that work doesn't
interfere with family and other personal time.
Employees also cite reduced human contact
as another disadvantage to working remotely. It can lead to feelings
of loneliness and isolation because the social aspect of the work-
place arising out of face-to-face interaction is missing. Additionally,
important non-verbal cues are absent when using electronic communication
as an alternative to face-to-face interaction. For example, misinterpretation
of electronic text can occur when people attempt to add personality
to the factual content of their electronic mail. In addition, people
who leave incomplete or rambling voice mail messages, or are delinquent
in returning messages, can leave a negative impression, or even convey
incompetence or laziness. This type of miscommunication can degrade
work relationships. Furthermore, as a result of reduced human contact,
employees lose the benefit of hearing company and industry information
from colleagues in the office. Instead, employees have to put forth
more effort to stay current with the latest corporate news.
A third disadvantage to remote work is a
manager's tendency to over-supervise employees they do not see regularly.
To compensate for limited, in person contact, some managers require
their employees to submit proof of performance and written status
reports as a way to monitor work hours and tasks, and to measure performance.
Not only can this send an underlying message of mistrust to employees,
but detailed documentation of job activities adds an unnecessary burden
to employees' already full work load.
Another disadvantage is the potential for
a remote employee's career to stall. Employees who are unable to interact
face to face with their manager may be overlooked for the promotions
or high visibility assignments that eventually lead to senior level
positions. Some employees are concerned that their company might think
they are less committed to hard work if they telecommute, therefore
they are reluctant to participate in a remote work program.
Finally, many employees are concerned that
the real estate and facility benefits that the company receives as
a result of remote work translates into an increase in an employee's
home facility costs. For example, the work at home employee has to
keep the furnace and air conditioning running for longer periods in
the day. In addition, there is an increase in electricity usage for
typical home items such as lighting, heating and cooling, as well
as new electricity charges for powering home office equipment. Unfortunately,
employees using their home as their office do not typically get tax
breaks to offset these additional costs.
Organizational Considerations for Implementing
a Remote Work Environment
Companies preparing to offer employees a
remote work option should take into account technical, management
and training issues.
Technically, the company should evaluate
which information technology tools and applications employees will
need to perform their work remotely. These may include a laptop computer,
cellular phone, pager, and speaker phone. Companies should also consider
collaborative applications such as GroupWare
9, the Intranet 10 and
distance learning 11. These
software tools help to:
- Facilitate teamwork among virtual teams.
- Provide remote workers with readily accessible
corporate and industry information.
- Increase internal and external communication
with employees and clients.
- Enhance employees' skills while keeping
travel time and costs down.
From a management perspective, managing
from a distance should not be much different than managing remotely.
That is, managers set expectations, monitor progress, provide feedback,
and perform administrative functions. However, managers may have to
enhance other important leadership skills such as trust, empowerment
and open communication. For example, if a manager suggests that his
or her team participate in an important conference call, he or she
should trust that the team will be on the call, and then not fret
when an employee fails to attend. It is the manager's job to inform
the team of the event, and to trust that the employee will participate
or take the necessary actions to understand what he or she missed.
In a remote environment, a manager's focus shifts from management
by observation to management by objectives and results. That is, the
quality, quantity and timeliness of the project are more important
than the process the employee used to complete the project.
Another important management focus in a remote
work environment is communication. There is limited opportunity for
spontaneous, face-to-face team and individual interaction, therefore
communication has to be planned and deliberate. Managers can schedule
weekly conference calls to give team members an opportunity to provide
each other with project status. Frequent calls between manager and
employee should also take place to discuss project, performance and
other remote work related issues. In addition, managers should come
up with creative methods to congratulate employees on a job well done
since there is less opportunity for in-person "pats on the back."
One example is to send congratulatory flowers or candy to the remote
employee's home. These types of actions help remote employees feel
that they are an integral part of the team and corporation.
In addition to technical and management
considerations, companies offering remote work options should provide
training for employees and managers. Topics might include: how to
use information technology tools such as the laptop computer, electronic
mail, and GroupWare, how and when to use video or teleconferencing
to successfully facilitate remote meetings, how to lead virtual teams/projects,
how to effectively communicate electronically, etc. These topics are
important in order to minimize work interruptions due to technical
problems, and to ensure electronic communication is clear and efficient.
Policy Considerations for Companies
Companies embarking on remote work options
should evaluate current corporate employment policies to identify
those that should change, and to determine if new ones should be added.
The following list is a sample of items that companies should address
in their remote work policies:
- Employee salary, benefits, and employer-sponsored
insurance coverage. Typically, remote work will not affect these.
- Liability for job-related accidents.
An employee's remote work space is an extension of the organization's
work space, therefore, this policy will probably not change. However,
some companies may want to implement home inspections to ensure
remote workers are working in a safe and secure environment.
- Equipment and other remote work related
costs such as: computers, fax machines, pagers, telephones, phone
lines, Internet access, supplies, etc. Companies will have to decide
which costs are reimbursable.
- Using company owned equipment for personal
- Type of hardware, software and Internet
access remote employees will use.
- Confidentiality and security of company
owned documents and equipment assets. This includes security codes,
passwords, dial-up access information and userIDs.
- Liability for loss, damage or wear of
employee owned equipment used for work.
- Conditions under which participants are
offered (and also removed from) a remote work program.
- Remote workers' conditions of employment
with the organization. Typically this policy would not change.
- Training required to be approved for
Along with remote work policies, companies
should provide employees with general guidelines for working remotely.
These guidelines might cover: setting up a home office space to maximize
efficiency, reporting technical problems and receiving technical support,
using the appropriate technology for the work situation (e.g., teleconference
vs. video conference,) and providing leadership in a remote environment.
Organizations should consider documenting this information in an employee
reference manual, as well as providing regular communiqués regarding
remote work news and issues.
Policy Implications for the Public Sector
The remote work benefits, issues and policy
implications previously discussed for the private sector, are also
applicable to the public sector. However, the reasons for the public
sector to offer remote work options for its employees, and to embrace
a remote work society are broader because they address issues that
affect all citizens such as government funding and customer service.
The public sector is in a unique position to model remote work alternatives
for the private sector and communities because of its visibility and
reach. Yet, very few government employees work remotely. In fact,
it is estimated that today, only 3000-4000 Federal employees are involved
in telecommuting programs. 12
A National Telecommuting Initiative is currently
underway to expand government's use of remote work options. The focus
of the initiative is to use remote work as one way to address the
challenges of: limited government funding, customer service, employee
needs, energy consumption, air quality and global warming, and traffic
congestion and safety.
The following brief descriptions represent
how government views remote work (specifically telecommuting) as addressing
these challenges. These excerpts are taken from the National Telecommuting
Initiative Action Plan: 13
Telecommuting can help ease the burden of
budget deficits by reducing the amount of real estate needed for work
space, increasing employee productivity, and streamlining planning.
Customer Service: Telecommuting allows government to better serve
citizens through co-location of customer services in multi-purpose
US General Store centers, enabling inspectors to work in the field
more closely with people.
Changing social values and more diverse and
flexible life-styles have an impact on the workplace. Two and three
hour daily commutes added to an eight-hour workday impact family relationships.
Telecommuting reduces gas-intensive commutes,
and energy consumption in commercial buildings (due to less office
space required for remote employees.) Government can be a leader in
reducing both by offering its employees a telecommuting option. Air
Quality and Global Warming: Transportation is a major contributor
to the air pollution problem in most urban areas, and will be the
fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions through the year
2000. Telecommuting can help reduce the demand for transportation
and move toward cleaner air and less global warming in the future.
Some states have already adopted a policy requiring a certain percentage
of a company's workforce to carpool or telecommute to reduce pollution.
Companies that don't comply incur a fine.
Traffic Congestion and Safety:
Telecommuting is seen as a way to manage
travel demands, thereby reducing congestion and meeting national air
quality goals. Telecommuters also lower their risk of injury and death
by reducing the amount of time spent in rush-hour traffic.
In addition to addressing these challenges,
the tax implications for remote workers should also be re-examined.
Currently, few tax benefits exist for employees taking advantage of
a company's mobility or telework programs. Policies could take the
form of tax breaks for companies that offer remote work alternatives,
and/or tax credits for telecommuters to offset any increase in costs
incurred as a result of working from home.
The widespread use and acceptance of technology
in society makes remote work viable and appealing. There are clear
advantages to this alternative work arrangement, but as with anything
new, there are challenges. Some of these challenges can be overcome
within an organization so that remote work programs can be widened
to include more employees. Remote programs will eventually expand
to include more organizations within the private and public sectors,
as more examples of successful implementations are publicized and
shared. While remote work does not necessarily present unique challenges
which require new policies, current policies should be reviewed to
optimize the success of this new work environment for employees, companies,
government and citizens.
Cohen, S & Malhotra, Y., "Virtual Corporations,
Human Issues & Information Technology," WWW Document, URL:
Morris, B., "Home-Office Heaven--And Hell,"
Fortune, 3/97, http://pathfinder.com/fortune/1997/970317/fam2.html.
Fryer, B., "Home Work", Working Woman, V22,
Handy, C., "Trust and the Virtual Organization",
Harvard Business Review, 1995: 40-50.
IBM Public Affairs Papers accessible via
the web: http://www.ibm.com/ibm/publicaffairs/index.html.
- Understanding The Global Information
- Protecting Privacy and Securing Data
- Assuring Access for All
- Making Electronic Commerce Work
- Protecting our Health and Safety
- Rethinking Government
- Achieving Educational Equity with Advanced
- A New Vision for the Utility and Energy
- Reducing Uncertainty in our Health Care
- Banking in the Network Economy
- How Network Computing is Changing Industrial
- How Travel & Transportation will Change
in a Networked World
- A Global Cryptographic Policy Framework
- Transforming Developing Countries with
- Transforming Higher Education
- Understanding Internet Content Principles
IBM Leadership Development, The Remote
and Mobile Sourcebook, 1997
Association for Commuter Transportation
(ACT) - http://fimat.cob.fsu.edu/act.htm
AT&T Telework Guide - http://www.att.com/telework/
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA Internet Links - http://www.epa.gov/docs/Internet.html
FedWorld - http://www.fedworld.gov
General Services Administration - Center
for Information Technology Implementation - http://www.gsa.gov/et/fic-firs/fic.htm
TAC - The International Telework Association
The Telecommuting Archive - http://www.eff.org:80/pub/EFF/Policy/OP/Telecommuting/
Valley Metro-Telecommuting Info (Phoenix,
AZ) - http://www.maricopa.gov/rpta/telecom.html
working out of a home office.
Locations (other than a company's home office site) in which work
activities are carried out using information technology tools such
as laptop computers, electronic mail, voice mail, teleconferencing,
and video conferencing.
Employees in transit, that is, employees who don't work from a set
location at a set time.
http://www.infographex.com/langhoff/gaqs.html, FAQs about Telecommuting
Buhler P, Managing your Career: No Longer Your Company is Responsible,
Supervision, 1997 (V58) 24-26
FAQs about Telecommuting
is anetwork application that provides team members with electronic
space to store documents, reports, graphics, memos, etc. Teams can
also engage in discussions and decision making in the electronic space.
Web servers made available to employees via an internal network or
dial up access. Employees access corporate databases, documents, and
other information via a Web browser.
approach to education delivery that does not require a student to
be present in the classroom in order to participate in the instruction.
It replaces the same-time, same-place, face-to-face environment of
a traditional classroom.
National Telecommuting Initiative Action Plan, - Executive Summary.
National Telecommuting Initiative Action Plan, - Executive Summary.
one-stop service center providing services such as: income tax filling,
post office services, social security, housing and children assistance,
and kiosk information options.