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What is Telecommuting?

Broadband connections and productivity apps make it possible for employees to work without leaving home. Is telecommuting a solution for your business?

Telecommuting allows employees to work from home for at least a portion of the workweek. U.S. companies increasingly turn to telecommuting to cut costs, allow their employees to balance work and life and help the environment. 

Growing with Telecommuting

While only 2.9 million Americans consider the home to be their primary work location, the numbers are growing. The Telework Research Network (TRN) reports that telecommuting job numbers increased by 61 percent between 2005 and 2009, with the average teleworker working from home 2.4 days a week.

The TRN reported over 70 percent of work-at-home employees hold sales, office, management or professional positions. And while popular opinion claims that telecommuting is best suited to young, technologically savvy employees, the TRN discovered older workers are more likely to hold telecommuting positions.

Telecommuting Advantages

Working from home can benefit both business owners and their employees. Telecommuters cite fewer distractions, resulting in higher productivity. Employers save on real estate, office supplies and utility costs.

In addition, severe weather, traffic jams and similar disruptions are less likely to interrupt a telecommuter's productivity. Such conditions can make it impossible for employees to reach the office, while telecommuters can continue to work without interruption (unless, of course, the disaster causes blackouts).

Telecommuting and the Environment

Telecommuting also encourages a greener business model.

At present, 2.9 million U.S. adults telecommute, at least for part of the week. All told, this small section of the U.S. workforce saves over 390 million gallons of gas a year, lowering the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by 3.6 million tons.

Concerns about Telecommuting

Managers and business owners may balk at the idea of telecommuting. Supervisors worry about loss of employee control and productivity. Managers who have no qualms about leaving a valued employee in charge of projects in-office worry that the same employee will slack off at home.

Communication is also an issue. Less face-to-face interaction can cause miscommunications that slow productivity. Timely communication is also an issue: Managers may worry that telecommuters won’t be reachable when they're most needed.

Such concerns are valid up to a point, but are easily overcome. Successful telecommuting relies on choosing employees well suited to independent work and establishing a well thought out telecommuting policy.

Choosing Telecommuting Staff

For many employees, telecommuting is both a reward and a sign of their employer's trust. Such rewards should be offered to employees with proven track records of reliability and productivity. Telecommuting employees must work well independently and possess the time management skills needed to prioritize and complete tasks.

Because it's a reward, telecommuting should be a choice, not an order. Some employees, even those who seem custom-made for telecommuting, may prefer to stay in-office. Place your employees where they'll be happiest and most productive.

Building a Telecommuting Policy

A solid telecommuting policy clearly defines the employer's expectations from work-at-home staff. Lines of communication need to be clearly laid out. Fortunately, cell phones solve many of the communication problems that once came with telecommuting.

A system for tracking and analyzing productivity is important so both employer and employee understand what's expected from work-at-home staff. With cloud storage and file transfer services such as Dropbox, businesses can track employee work and monitor project progress.

Security is, of course, an issue. The telecommuting policy needs to spell out how the employee handles sensitive files and documents out of the office, as well as how such data moves between office and work. Again, secure file-sharing services may provide a solution.

Staying Connected

While it's possible to work from home full-time, most employees assign telecommuting duties on a part-time basis. Face-to-face communication remains important for weekly meetings, brainstorming sessions and other team-related activity.

Coming into the office a few times a week prevents the telecommuting employee from feeling isolated, and helps maintain the sense of being part of a team.

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