According to a new report from The Conference Board, the proportion of employees who work predominantly from home or from another remote location has, during the last decade, more than tripled in many industries, while nearly doubling nationwide among all full-time (nonself-employed) U.S. workers.
Drawn from a number of recent surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau and private sources, the report, “The Incredible Disappearing Office: Making Telework Work,” published by The Conference Board in May 2012, finds employees taking more frequent advantage of such workplace flexibility across the board, with 84 percent of employees who telework more than once per month now working remotely at least one day per week. In 2008, that number was 72 percent.
“A confluence of factors, led by the rapid expanse of sophisticated, secure, and relatively inexpensive communication technologies, has sparked a quiet revolution in where and how many Americans do their jobs,” explains Amy Lui Abel, director of human capital research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report. “To take full advantage of the opportunities teleworking provides—while avoiding the many potential pitfalls—employers and employees must engage in an open dialog that establishes the mutual expectations and responsibilities that come with this new workplace culture. Our report should serve as a catalyst for beginning that conversation.”
The latest research finds that teleworking rates (just over 2% nationwide) remain highest in occupations traditionally associated with the practice—including child care workers (9.1% in 2010), writers and authors (9.3%), and sales representatives (10.8%). The fastest growth, however, has been outside these familiar work-from-home roles, with the most dramatic increases seen in computer-related positions and others reliant on remote access to technical systems. The advancements in home networking during the last decade have been accompanied by huge teleworking gains among records clerks, 5.5 percent of whom teleworked in 2008–2010 (up 516% since 2001–2003); insurance underwriters (4.5%, up 275%); lawyers (2.0%, up 166%); computer software developers (6.1%, up 127%); and many similar professions.
These trends are fundamentally altering the profile of the average teleworker. Where employees of nonprofit organizations were most likely to telework in 2000, by 2010 the for-profit sector had taken the lead. It may be unsurprising that workplace flexibility appeals both to older workers nearing (or delaying) retirement, and younger new hires for whom virtual presence and multichannel communication are second nature. Steady technical refinement, however, has made teleworking an increasingly attractive business proposition as well.
As a case study, the report cites IBM’s long-term holistic strategy, which grew out of the 1970s and the idea of installing access “terminals” in employees’ homes. By 1995, 10,000 IBM employees were mobile, allowing the company to move from a traditional 1:1 workspace-to-worker ratio to 1:4. In just that first year, a $41.5 million investment in worker training returned $74 million in savings.
With today’s significantly cheaper, lighter-weight technology, organizations without IBM’s expertise can now achieve similar savings. It is little wonder then, that the federal government is embracing the approach. Signed into law on Dec. 9, 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act (TEA) established a framework of identifying and training eligible employees, backed by appropriate policy and support, effective management oversight, and timely reporting; it offers a model not only for public agencies but also private organizations seeking to implement their own telework programs.
In surveys, teleworkers cite a number of obvious lifestyle benefits. With no commute, employees enjoy time with loved ones during precious morning and evening hours. Based from home, they gain the flexibility to adjust their schedules as job and personal demands arise. Likewise, teleworkers often note improved performance and higher productivity, with the ability to focus on work priorities free of the stress of distractions and office politics.
At the same time, this very autonomy can have distinct drawbacks. Teleworkers may feel cut off from their colleagues and weakened in their ability to influence both day-to-day decisions and larger strategic plans. They often lack sufficient professional and administrative support and fear that being “out of sight, out of mind” keeps them from being properly recognized and rewarded by management. With meetings and group projects more difficult to coordinate, teleworkers also risk resentment from office-based colleagues, who may assume additional responsibilities in their absence. Finally, the same “always on” technology that makes the modern home office possible can mean difficulties setting boundaries between home and work time, setting the stage for potential overwork and burnout.
According to the report, extensive, proactive planning from the top is key to reaping the significant cost savings and worker-satisfaction gains of teleworking while maintaining organizationwide morale and cohesion. Whether opportunities for telework are reserved for the best-performing employees, promoted across an organization, or used to attract standout applicants from a wider talent pool (such as disabled veterans, semi-retired experts, and parents with young children), leaders must establish formal, transparent guidelines if the “virtual office” is to be a real success.
“Research concurs that the dual lynch pins of effective teleworking are strong management and robust IT,” explains report co-author, Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at The Conference Board. “With support from Human Resources, managers at all levels must make the ‘mental shift’ to trusting that employees are getting the job done without seeing them every day—and to have the strength to act decisively when they’re not. On the technology side, the right hardware and software choices backed up by abundant support staff can make the difference between a seamless transition and hundreds or thousands of man-hours lost to bugs and faulty connections.”
From these prerequisites, “The Incredible Disappearing Office: Making Telework Work” offers a guideline for “making telework work.” The report details best practices for:
• Building strong team relationships that bring together teleworkers and others
• Building a strong community of teleworkers that can share experiences and offer advice online or in-person
• Promoting an organizational culture that recognizes the needs and talents of teleworkers
• Growing the technical literacy of managers so they “buy in” to advantages of some employees working remotely and can identify potential telework opportunities
• Refining performance and reward systems to maximize individual initiative and minimize “slacking off” and trust issues
• Creating established no-meeting times or “isolation zones” to ease information overload for all employees
• Implementing flexible policies tailored to family needs for retaining talented workers
• Integrating support for traveling workers as part of a larger teleworking program
• Broadening recruitment to attract talent especially well served by telework