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Science & Technology

Telecommuting: Home or Office?

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Science & Technology

Information Technology

"Working at home is a way of balancing work and family"

From Diana J. Choyce
Apr 16 - 22, 2001

Telecommuting means working from anywhere other than your office, preferably at home in your pajamas. In the last decade scores of people have taken to this mobile way of working. And they love it. More freedom, no suits and ties, more time at home with their families. Technology has made this all possible. However the future of telecommuting seems up in the air. The majority of these "free" workers are small business owners or work for smaller companies that can afford to be flexible. Large companies and corporations don't appear as willing to give their employees the same freedoms.

Despite faster and faster connections, smaller computers, cheaper laptops, and advances in networking software, telecommuting has not evolved as it was predicted to do ten years ago. Past predictions were inflated due to the "PC mania of ten years ago when everyone thought there would be a PC on every kitchen counter for their recipes," said Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a Monmouth Junction, N.J., researcher. Gordon said the number of teleworkers people who are not self-employed and who work one day a week or more at home has grown 10 per cent per year for the past five to eight years. Not an explosion, maybe, but certainly a respectable figure. "Telecommuting is alive and well and growing, but it's clearly not universally distributed across the workplace landscape," Gordon said. "It's not something that everyone offers." Carl Van Horn a professor affiliated at Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, agreed. In the past there were two inhibitors: management philosophy and technology, Van Horn said. "The latter has eroded to be very minimal," he said. "Setting up telework offices is not expensive, where it used to be very costly. The cost of equipment is way, way low, as is the cost for secure broadband transmission." Van Horn estimated setting up a remote office in 1992 to be about $5,000 for a fax modem and a fast computer. The same office can now be fielded for around $2,000. "People used to have problems with long-distance connections, etc.," he said. "And you don't have that with satellite cable and other things. You can be online all day for a flat charge." Van Horn estimates that a broadband setup in New Jersey, for example, can be had for $30 to $40 per month, whereas long-distance phone costs in 1992 could run to $150 or more.

Even as late as the latter part of the year 200 predictions were still calling for a growth in telecommuting. The research group, IDC, said that telecommuting in the U.S. would increase 9 per cent, from 39 million in 2000 to 55 million in 2004. Latin America would experience the largest telecommuter growth rate at 28 per cent, from 5.1 million in 1999 to 17.4 million in 2004. Western Europe's mobile and remote workers would increase nearly 28 per cent, from 8 million to 27 million during the same time. IDC also said, "telecommuting will skyrocket as more people adopt handheld devices, as wireless and broadband technologies for business travellers improve, and as technology to deliver mission-critical applications to home workers are enhanced".

It appears that those predictions were a bit premature. In fact, the pressure is on in some companies to bring those home workers back into the corporate nest. "It may be time for them to get out of their PJs and back into suits," said Tim Scannell, analyst with Mobile Insights, a Mountain View, Calif. research firm. "I see the pendulum swinging back the other way as companies want people in the office," said an IT manager for media giant AOL Time Warner. "Companies are looking at this looming recession and the first thing they do is call those people in from home," said Scannell. "They feel that there is a lack of control over home workers and the obvious answer is to pull employees back into the building where there is more control." Ronan McGrath, CIO of Rogers Communications, the Toronto cable and media conglomerate agrees. "The concept of a widely-distributed, highly-coordinated workforce is hard to implement. Decentralizing people just based on real estate is not a compelling reason."

The main stumbling blocks to teleworking seem to be finance and support. It is still very expensive for a company to set up and maintain a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for an employee. This leaves the employee left handling his own internet connection and computer support. At the workplace, most companies are tied into fast, broadband connections. Most of these large companies are not willing to commit the finances to tie homeworkers into that connection. Nearly half of the workers surveyed, by the Heldrich Center and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, said they are more productive working at home or somewhere else offsite, and 11 per cent said they are less productive under those circumstances. And while 59 per cent of workers indicated they would take advantage of telecommuting, only 17 per cent said they have been offered that option. Yet 67 per cent said they have computer and Internet access at home. "Some managers think they need to see someone in order to manage them," Van Horn said. "It's a wrong philosophy, but it's an old philosophy." "They'd rather come home and have dinner with the kids by 7 than stay at work late and miss all that," Van Horn said. "Working at home is a way of balancing work and family." This writer humbly agrees. At this time in the world's history, where all are concerned about the erosion of the family, the dollar still stands in the way. And our children are still being left behind. Shame on us.