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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Telecommuting: It's about time and place...

I just wrote the following piece for WorkplaceFlexibility.com.au, based in Australia. Thanks to Juliet Bourke from Aequus Partners for allowing reproduction:

After considerable debate, the U.S. Congress has finally approved the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. 

The Bill, which has passed both the House and the Senate, is now awaiting President Obama's signature. Once that happens, federal agencies will be required to develop a policy that allows eligible employees to do at least some portion of their work outside of the office, with the aid of electronic communications. Agencies will also be required to incorporate this alternative arrangement into its operational planning for natural and other disasters.

Why it's a no-brainer...
There is an abundance of research data demonstrating the positive effects of teleworking - or telecommuting - on employee well-being and on the employer's bottom line. In a "meta-analysis" of 46 studies of telecommuting involving 12,833 employees, Pennsylvania State University psychologists, Ravi Gajendran and David A. Harrison, found that telecommuting was a win-win for both employees and employers. 

Telecommuting gives employees a sense of freedom at work, which contributes to job satisfaction. It reduces stress and helps workers balance their work and personal responsibilities. Employees who telecommute maintain and increase their productivity. Having access to telecommuting increases workers' loyalty; and working outside of the office for one or two days per week has no negative effect on employee relations with coworkers or managers. 

Gejendran and Harrison's findings reflect what I learned in a small qualitative study of women telecommuters who were employed in several major American corporations. Despite the dramatic influx of women into the paid labor force in the past few decades, they continue to be the primary caregivers within their families. With inadequate government family policies in the U.S., and the limited response within the private sector to employees' family concerns, our society is experiencing an enormous care gap. Telecommuting provides women - and increasingly men - with a legitimate avenue to combine and/or accommodate their market work and caregiving responsibilities. 

The women telecommuters I interviewed claimed that the arrangement improved their work-life balance, allowing them to have more control over when and where they performed their work. At the same time, telecommuting helped them to maximize their productivity, serving the ultimate objective of employers. One telecommuter I interviewed for the study told me that she was able to maintain her work, despite dealing with a serious health problem.

"I've just been diagnosed with breast cancer, so about a month ago I had surgery and now I'm getting radiation every day, and in the summer I will start chemotherapy. So being a telecommuter is enabling me to work from home if I'm not well enough to come into the office."

And a manager of a customer service department told me that telecommuting, while supporting employees' needs, also benefited the company's bottom line. Describing his rationale for implementing a telecommuting policy in his department, he said, 

"People can do the same thing they can do in the office at home and save them the wear and tear of coming to work, the wear and tear of a long commute in many instances, maybe tolls... schlepping around with the kids trying to go to a child development center. The company benefits to the extent that every time we have a bad weather close-down, we have people on the phone at home instead of disruption of service. So it's a win-win on both sides."

Trial run in the States...
Indeed, telecommuting has been instituted in a number of U.S. federal agencies already, as well as in numerous corporations. In a 2004 study of 74 federal agencies, 43% of employees (323,292) reported that they were eligible to telework, compared to 35% of employees (625,313) in 2002, representing a gain of more than 20%. And in the overall U.S. labor force - including public and private employers - it's estimated that more than 33.7 million workers telework at least one day per month.


Moreover, 22 states have already passed telework legislation. A number have implemented these policies to address environmental concerns or traffic congestion; some states encourage private employers to implement telecommuting programs; and others have statutes connecting employee productivity and efficiency to telecommuting, or promoting "a better quality of life."

Historically, many federal policies in the U.S. are first implemented at the state level. This was the case for Social Security, health care reform, maternity and parental leave, and even civil rights legislation. The federal legislation was the culmination of pressure in smaller policy environments. But having a federal bill can also provide a model for more universal implementation. In addition to creating a mandate for federal agencies, hopefully the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 will provide encouragement for additional states and private sector employers to institute or expand their telecommuting policies.

Making the Bill real...
While the effects of telecommuting are positive for employers and employees, it is only workable for certain types of work and with certain employees, and therefore not a universal solution to problems in workplace policy. But it is particularly well-suited for those doing "knowledge work" that can be effectively performed in multiple locations with the help of electronic communications. 

Even for those who have jobs that are conducive to telecommuting, the face-time culture of most organizations may undercut its utilization. It's one thing to have a policy, and yet another to have employees use it. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires training for employers and employees, which is a critical element to shift an organization's culture. 

In my telecommuting study, I found that even those who felt supported for their work at home felt it was a privilege, and in turn, worked additional hours to "prove" their loyalty. But when they did use a policy, it improved their quality of life.

The cost/benefit debate...
The sad fact is that Republican opposition to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 is not based on what's good for employees or employers. It simply affords Republicans another opportunity to say that less government is better. But that argument doesn't make sense if the policy is administered with care. Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican legislator from North Carolina, argued that with a high unemployment rate, it is a "travesty" that Democrats are "pushing this initiative to make it easier for federal employees - who already have it much easier than the rest of the country -  to avoid the office."

 
Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican legislator from California, said that the law adds a layer of bureaucracy into federal agencies, claiming that Americans want less government. Bolstered by recent elections of conservative Republicans to Congress, he says, "This will be the first vote after the American people said no to government waste, fraud and abuse, government growth and government spending." Issa will undoubtedly try to amend or change this legislation when he begins his role as the new Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. According to the New York Times, Issa's plans are part of a larger Republican agenda to vastly expand scrutiny of the Obama administration and aggressively push to cut spending and shrink the government, focusing on "excesses and waste."


Democrats who supported the passage of the telework legislation provided evidence regarding its cost-effectiveness. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the bill will cost around $30 million over five years, but the return on this investment will pay off over time. Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democratic legislator from Massachusetts and my very own Congressional representative, said the long-term savings will provide an "excellent return" on this initial investment. And indeed, the experience of many private companies suggest that he's right on the money. IBM has saved as much as $56 million annually and reduced office space by allowing employees to telework; Cisco generated an estimated annual savings of $277 million in productivity by allowing employees to telecommute. And IBM Canada currently saves $20 million in operating costs annually and over 500,000 feet of real estate with its telework program.

Let's hope that sanity - backed up by plenty of data and experience throughout the U.S. - will prevail once this sensible piece of legislation is signed by the President, and that the resistance will be met with reason.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful piece Mindy! As always, comprehensive and full of important and interesting details!

    ReplyDelete