Study: Telework gains acceptance

There was a time when you could tell someone that you worked from home, and they'd reply, "Right. 'Work' from home." The air quotes were audible.

However, skepticism in an employee's ability to get the job done away from the corporate office continues to decrease, according to a recent study by Yoh, a provider of talent and outsourcing services to customers in the United States. For the study, the company surveyed 198 HR managers at the Society for Human Resource Management 2006 Conference and Exposition.

The study finds that 67 percent of HR managers believe that telecommuting likely will increase over the next two years.

Moreover, the study finds that 81 percent of companies already have remote work policies in place. Of the HR managers surveyed, 25% said that employees at their companies have the option of telecommuting from home. Another 13% can work from a satellite office. Nineteen percent have no telecommuting opportunities. The remaining 44% fall under the cryptic category of Other.

A couple of factors seem to be driving the trend. First, the option of telecommuting is an enticing benefit to prospective high-talent employees. "The war for talent, combined with commuting times and costs, and an increasing need for work-life balance are all factors that promote telecommuting," says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing for Yoh. "This survey validates what we've seen over the years: High-impact talent prefers - indeed, thrives - in an environment that provides a flexible work-life balance."

Advances in technology are also playing a key role. "People and organizations have long wanted the business flexibility that telecommuting offers. But it's only in recent years that the technologies that enable cost-effective telecommunications have reached critical mass - such as wireless broadband, PDAs and smart phones, and standard issue PCs capable of remote enterprise access," says Lanzalotto.

Interestingly, though, the study seems to contradict findings from a Gartner study from earlier this year, as reported by Dave Margulius. In a report, Gartner said it expected the growth of telecommuting to slow, from 12 percent -- worldwide and in the United States -- in 2005 to 5.5 percent worldwide and 3.7 percent in the United States by 2008.

Security factors also remain a telecommuting concern, IDC reported earlier this year. It's easy to be lax when it comes to securing a home-worker's system, making them easier prey for viruses, for example.

Perhaps even worse, data leaks abound throughout the corporate world, and in many cases, thieves are getting access to employee and customers' private, unencrypted data - not by clever hacks but by simply swiping a laptop.

From personal experience, I can say that it's much easier to be productive from my home office than it was a few years ago. (Of course I say that; I am writing this from that very location.) But really: I have my laptop, along with high-speed Internet access from which to quickly get at the apps and data I need. Wireless Internet access is also abundant, helpful if, for example, I'm working from my girlfriend's home office.

Throw in collaborative technologies such as IM, easy-access e-mail (I tend to use Web-based Exchange when working remotely), and reliable cell-phone service, and it's pretty much like being in the office -- except I don't need to spend time commuting (save for the five second walk to my desk). Heck, I don't even need to shower.

However, there are still some potential drawbacks to telecommuting, from my experience. A couple of weeks ago, we had some fairly important editorial meetings at our San Francisco office. I opted to work from home one of those days and called in for several sessions. It was difficult to keep up at times, since I was unable to see the projection screen or the notes the meeting leader was writing on the whiteboard, or to even hear all that was being said in the conference room.

Granted, Web conferencing is an increasingly viable means of having a meeting with far-flung individuals, but it's not always practical to set those up just for the sake of a couple of participants.

Moreover, some things are much easier to explain face to face to a co-worker than they are via e-mail, IM, or even the telephone. There are plenty of visual elements to discuss when planning a magazine section each week, and the ability to sit down with the art director (who is a very visual person) for a few minutes is useful.

Finally, one potential advantage to having 24/7 access to my job is also a potential drawback: It's difficult to resist the allure of checking e-mail or posting articles at odd hours. That could be dangerous for a workaholic.

What do you think about telecommuting, either from a managerial or telecommuter perspective?