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Wednesday, Aug 07, 2002

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Have the cake & eat it too?

Krishnan Thiagarajan

It looks like one can now work from home while keeping the boss happy. But more needs to be done to perfect telecommuting.

Telecommuting (or e-work or working from home) is an idea whose time has probably come. Nevertheless, this idea is still in its infancy even in the developed countries such as the US - with both employees and employers exploring it as a mutually beneficial concept for the long run. Serious studies on the subject are being conducted in the US and parts of Europe for the past couple of years. One such study conducted on telecommuting by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in April 2002 has thrown up some positive results. Christened "The Positively Broadband Campaign" the study was conducted by the Winston Group (surveying 1000 individuals), and the key findings of the survey (from the standpoint of employees) were:

  • A majority of Americans (54 per cent) think that telecommuting would improve the quality of their lives. Among those that commute an hour or more a day, this view jumped to 66 per cent.

  • Among those who commute, about one-third would prefer the option of telecommuting over a higher salary. Additionally, a significant portion of the population (46 per cent) thought their quality of work would improve if they were able to telecommute.

  • Many Americans believe that being able to telecommute would provide more time to be a better parent or spouse. Forty-three per cent of respondents indicated that they would be a better spouse or parent if they were able to telecommute.

  • From the standpoint of employers too, the results of telecommuting are equally enriching. A white paper titled "Any Time, Any place, Anywhere: Broadband and the Changing Face of Work" published as a part of this campaign, has highlighted that several companies have reported significant cost savings and productivity gains in encouraging telecommuting. The German major Siemens has claimed that it cut office space by 35 per cent and produced a $3-million annual savings as a result of its telecommuting efforts. It has also claimed that worker productivity increases of over 20 per cent have not been unusual. Similarly, the International Telework Association and Council has testified that several companies such as J.D. Edwards, IBM, American Express, Compaq and AT&T have derived considerable productivity gains and savings from these exercises.

    But no contact with colleagues

    However, most survey respondents felt that the biggest concern stemming from telecommuting was the absence of contact with fellow employees. Nearly 20 per cent of the survey respondents expressed this as one of the key concerns. It is obvious that this whole idea of telecommuting will take off and prove to be highly productive to both employees and employers only if major technological changes happen. Though technological progress such as broadband has happened, the adoption rates in the US have been rather poor so far.

    To reiterate this point, in the US, studies such as the one by ITAA and others have shown that dial-up networking (namely, slow speed internet connection of 56 kilo bits per second or below) has restricted the scope for telecommuting as it has had limited applications, basically for Web surfing or reading e-mail. So far, this limitation has proved to be a major bottleneck among companies contemplating telecommuting.

    However, most progressive managements in the US believe that broadband deployment and access will soon become pervasive and once that happens, it will provide a key launch pad for telecommuting. The rationale for such an assessment is triggered by the fact that broadband connectivity will create scope for large-scale file-sharing possibilities, working in collaborative teams, Webcasting or videoconferencing among employers and employees, thereby, making physical location irrelevant in quite a large proportion of jobs.

    On the whole, it is obvious that unless there is an extraordinary commitment on the part of the management, telecommuting is unlikely to be a reality in the foreseeable future. Till the employers and the employees get together and decide on the terms and conditions of telecommuting along with performance metrics for evaluation, the whole concept of telecommuting may prove to be a non-starter.

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