In general, so-called telecommuting is becoming more and more prevalent for office workers throughout the business world. This article discusses the downsides as well as the advantages.

Caring for an infant is a full-time job.

This subject came up in a conversation with a friend of mine who runs a sizable plumbing service company. A valued employee who worked as a dispatcher had just become a new mom and wanted to continue in her job working from home. It was possible to set up a computer terminal in her home tied to the company's service dispatch network. My friend asked my opinion whether or not he should go ahead. This article will share the issues we discussed.

In general, so-called telecommuting is becoming more and more prevalent for office workers throughout the business world. One study by the Dieringer Research Group found that the number of full-time employees allowed to work from home at least one day a month reached 9.9 million in the last year.

I'm one of them, by the way. I don't do it all the time, but some of my duties - including writing these articles - can be done at least as well and sometimes better from my home office, minus the distractions I face every day at work. For various reasons, I generally spend a couple or three days each month working from home rather than coming into the office.

Yet, there are downsides to this as well as advantages, which is why I'm not a full-time stay-at-home worker. I'll explain as we go along.

Telecommuting usually is seen as a perk to accommodate the needs of employees, such as parents of young children or those faced with elder-care responsibilities. However, business owners also realize benefits, as follows:
  • Aids in recruitment and retention. In the case of the plumbing company dispatcher, there was a chance that if the owner didn't grant her request to work from home, she would look for another job where she could. Every business owner seems to have trouble finding and retaining good people. If you can offer a telecommuting option, you expand your horizons to attract them. Telecommuting also opens doors to hire talented people who may be wheelchair-bound or otherwise disabled.
  • Reduces office expense. Companies that allow employees to work from home generally will realize a one-time expense of setting up telephone lines, computer, printer, fax, etc. at the employee's home. However, it also means the business can get by with less office space. That's a big potential savings over time. (I've heard of some companies insisting that work-from-home employees pay for their own office equipment. Bad idea, in my opinion. That means the employee owns it all, and if s/he quits or gets fired, you'll suddenly face the need to buy all the equipment for a replacement worker. Even worse, the former employee gets to keep everything stored in the computer, and that's not good. Unless it's an independent contracting arrangement, you need a signed agreement that if the employee leaves, s/he gives back all company-owned information and equipment, and in good working order.)
  • Reduces tardiness and absenteeism. Telecommuting employees don't get tied up in traffic jams or blizzards. They are more likely to shrug off the sniffles and put in a full day's work if they don't have to drive to the office.
  • Can be used as a trade-off with pay. The most affordable housing in major metropolitan areas tends to be located 25 miles to 50 miles outside the city limits. This means many employees of modest means face two-way daily commutes of 50 miles to 100 miles, with no alternative to the auto, in most cases. This chews up one to two tanks of gas a week, along with serious costs of auto depreciation and maintenance. Plus, the need for daily business attire boosts clothing expense. Add all this up and working from home can be worth $5,000 a year or more in savings, which is something to keep in mind when negotiating pay scales. Plus, think of how much it's worth to a person to trade two hours of stressful rush hour traffic for two hours of free time each day.

All of this is to say that telecommuting is not just a favor to employees. It can be a win-win for the employer as well.

Telecommuting does have definite cons as well as pros. One is that while you gain solace from office distractions, you substitute different disruptions at home.

Three Questions to Consider

A key question to consider for any telecommuting arrangement is whether the work needs to be done during normal business hours. Some duties, such as writing magazine articles or bookkeeping, can be done at any time of day as long as it's finished within deadlines. The employee's performance needs to be judged accordingly. It's always important that work gets done on time, but not necessarily important that it gets done between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day. However, some types of work, such as business-to-business telemarketing or service dispatching, must be handled during normal business hours.

One of the first issues I raised with my friend during our conversation about the dispatcher who wanted to work from home, was whether or not she had someone helping with child-care duties during daytime hours. If not, I didn't think this arrangement could work. Taking care of a child, especially an infant, is a full-time job. It's virtually impossible for anyone to take care of a child and work a job simultaneously. (I write this as the proud grandfather of a baby girl, whom I am only too happy to baby-sit at every opportunity. But I know better than to try to get anything else done at those times.)

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying mothers with infants shouldn't be allowed to work from home. As long as their duties can be performed at flexible times - maybe after dad gets home from work at night - fine. But they are deluding themselves if they think they can do productive work and take care of an infant at the same time.

In this case, I was told the woman would have her mother watching the child during daytime hours. She wanted to work from home to save commuting time and expense, and because she wanted to nurse her child. This would entail periodic breaks from her computer screen, but she would have been entitled to breaks at the office as well. Once this was explained, I saw no problem with doing her dispatching job from home.

A second question is whether or not the telecommuter has supervisory duties. I don't think a person who supervises other employees can be a full-time home worker - especially if the subordinates don't have the option to work from home. One of the reasons I don't work from home full-time is because I supervise editors from three magazines. True, with telephones and e-mail, we stay in touch from anywhere. Yet, I need to be available to answer questions and stay on top of their needs. Plus, I think there is no substitute for face-to-face contact when dealing with certain issues.

A third question that arises is whether telecommuting gets perceived as favoritism for certain employees. This can be tricky.

Usually, I decide to work from home on occasion when I have personal business to attend to, or when I travel and find it more trouble than it's worth to come to the office for just an hour or two. Occasionally, I do it when I have something complicated to work on and want to get away from office distractions. Our company's policy leaves it up to individual supervisors and the human resources department to allow staffers to work from home. I get permission from the people I report to, and, in turn, I grant my staffs leeway to work from home for similar reasons.

If flexible work hours are possible, telecommuting is a great option for both employers and employees.

Cons Come into Play

Telecommuting does have definite cons as well as pros. One is that while you gain solace from office distractions, you substitute different disruptions at home. Personal phone calls, household chores, television, intrusions from family members or neighbors, and outside noise are a few of the things that can make a home office even more chaotic than your workplace.

Also, it requires self-discipline for people to keep their nose to the grindstone when nobody is watching over their shoulders. Some people thrive on self-supervision, while others will use it as an excuse to goof off. Telecommuters need to be evaluated for performance and productivity just like any other employees. If performance starts to lag, it may be time to reevaluate the telecommuting option for that individual.

Furthermore, isolation is not advantageous for anyone's business or career advancement. Working with others in an office, people pick up information by osmosis day after day from business-related conversations or simply overhearing other employee conversations and phone calls. Bit by bit, this adds to knowledge of the business at-hand. For this reason, I think telecommuting works better for veteran employees than people of limited experience.

Finally, social interaction at work can play a part in boosting employee morale and staff cohesiveness - although I suppose a similar case could be made that it's good to keep employees who don't like one another apart. Telecommuting can cut down on office politics and gossip.

All things considered, count me as one very much in favor of telecommuting in a general sense. Just go into it with your eyes wide open to both pros and cons.