Nomad Workers

Telecommuting

[tel-i-kuh-myoo-ting]
Telecommuting, e-commuting, e-work, telework, working at home (WAH), or working from home (WFH) is a work arrangement in which employees enjoy flexibility in working location and hours. In other words, the daily commute to a central place of work is replaced by telecommunication links. Many work from home, while others, occasionally also referred to as nomad workers or web commuters utilize mobile telecommunications technology to work from coffee shops or myriad other locations. Telework is a broader term, referring to substituting telecommunications for any form of work-related travel, thereby eliminating the distance restrictions of telecommuting. All telecommuters are teleworkers but not all teleworkers are telecommuters. A frequently repeated motto is that "work is something you do, not something you travel to". A successful telecommuting program requires a management style which is based on results and not on close scrutiny of individual employees. This is referred to as management by objectives as opposed to management by observation. The terms telecommuting and telework were coined by American Jack Nilles in 1973.

Long distance telework is facilitated by such tools as virtual private networks, videoconferencing, and Voice over IP. It can be efficient and useful for companies as it allows staff and workers to communicate over a large distance, saving significant amounts of travel time and cost. As broadband Internet connections become more commonplace, more and more workers have enough bandwidth at home to use these tools to link their home office to their corporate intranet and internal phone networks.

Technology

The roots of telecommuting lay in early 1970s technology, linking satellite offices to downtown mainframes by dumb terminals using telephone lines as a network bridge. The massive ongoing decrease in cost and increase in performance and usability of personal computers forged the way to decentralize even further, moving the office to the home. By the early 1980s, these branch offices and home workers were able to connect to the company mainframe using personal computers and terminal emulation.

The adoption of local area networks promoted sharing of resources, and client server computing allowed for even greater decentralization. Today, telecommuters can carry laptop PCs around which they can use both at the office and at home (and almost anywhere else). Telecommuters are linked to their home office by using groupware, virtual private networks, and similar technologies to collaborate and interact with team members. As the price of VPN-capable routers, high-speed Internet connections to the home, and VOIP technology has plummeted in recent years, the cost to connect a telecommuter to their employer's intranet and telecommunications system has become negligible when compared with the operating costs of conventional offices.

Potential Benefits

Telecommuting options increase the employability of proximal or circumstantially marginalized groups, such as mothers and fathers with small children, the disabled and people living in remote areas. It can also reduce an individual's carbon footprint, through minimizing daily commuting. The set up also offers possibilities for increased service and international reach, since telecommuters in different time zones can ensure that a company is virtually open for business around the clock. Telework has also enabled offshore outsourcing. Telecommuting provides employee flexibility, eases the working parent's burden, increases employee productivity, and reduces absenteeism. Virtual offices allow employers to keep valuable employees, allow employers to hire employees otherwise not available, and have facilitated productive re-engineering of order-management and customer service processes.

Environmental benefits

Telecommuting gained more ground in the United States in 1996 after "the Clean Air Act amendments were adopted with the expectation of reducing carbon dioxide and ground-level ozone levels by 25 percent. The act required companies with over 100 employees to encourage car pools, public transportation, shortened workweeks, and telecommuting. In 2004, an appropriations bill was enacted by Congress to encourage telecommuting for certain Federal agencies. The bill threatened to withhold money from agencies that failed to provide telecommuting options to all eligible employees.

Telecommuting is seen as a solution to traffic congestion caused by single-car commuting, and the resulting urban air pollution and petroleum use. Initial investments in the network infrastructure and hardware are balanced by an increased productivity and overall greater well-being of telecommuting staff (more quality family time, less travel-related stress), which makes the arrangement attractive to companies, especially those who face large operating costs related to the need for a central office. Although estimates vary on the number of workers telecommuting in the U.S., some studies anticipate that the number will rise over the next few years. Barriers to continued growth of telecommuting include distrust from employers and personal disconnectedness for employees.

Research conducted by Kate Lister and Tom Harnish in 2008 shows that thirty-three million Americans hold jobs that could be performed at home. If they did, the U.S. could make major cuts in oil dependency. Based on their synthesis of data from EPA, DOT, and 7 other recent sources, they found that telework could reduce Gulf oil imports by 24 to 48%, reduce greenhouse gases by up to 67 million metric tons a year, and save as much as 7.5 billion gallons of gasoline each year. These new telecommuters would collectively avoid 154 billion miles of driving and save $25 billion in fuel purchases (even accounting for mileage for errands formerly accomplished driving to or from work). What's more, their research shows that by not commuting, these new teleworkers would enjoy the equivalent of an extra 5 workweeks of free time each year.

Employee satisfaction

Telework flexibility is a desirable perquisite for employees. A 2008 Robert Half International Financial Hiring Index, a survey of 1,400 CFOs by recruitment firm Robert Half International, indicated that 13% consider telework the best recruiting incentive today for accounting professionals. In earlier surveys, 33% considered telework the best recruiting incentive, and half considered it second best.

Current trends

U.S. federal government

Recent events have pushed telework to the forefront as a critical measurement for the U.S. federal government. Telework relates to continuity of operations (COOP) and national pandemic preparedness planning, reducing dependence on foreign oil and the burden of rising gas prices, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), and a focus on recruitment and retention.

During a keynote address at the September 12, 2007 Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting, Lurita Doan, at that time the Administrator for the General Services Administration, announced an aggressive commitment goal to increase agency telework participation. Her challenge will enable 50 percent of eligible agency employees to telework one or more days per week by 2010. Currently 10 percent of eligible GSA employees telework, compared to 4.2 percent for the overall Federal workforce. Her goal is to increase participation to 20 percent by the end of 2008, 40 percent by the end of 2009, and finally 50 percent by 2010.

A 2007 study of National Science Foundation employees indicated that approximately one-third participated in telework regularly, characterized staff satisfaction with the program, and noted savings in employee time and greenhouse-gas emissions as a result of telework.

Distributed work

Telecommuters need not necessarily work from the home. A more recent extension of telecommuting is distributed work. Distributed work entails the conduct of organizational tasks in places that extend beyond the confines of traditional offices. It can refer to organizational arrangements that permit or require workers to perform work more effectively at any appropriate location, such as their homes and customers' sites - through the application of information and communication technology. An example is financial planners who meet clients during lunchtime with access to various financial planning tools and offerings on their mobile computers, or publishing executives who recommend and place orders for the latest book offerings to libraries and university professors, among others. Another example is the telework centers around Washington, D.C. in Maryland (6), Virginia (8), and D.C. and West Virginia (one each), which generally are relatively close to a majority of people who might otherwise drive or take public transit, and also feature the full complement of office equipment and a high-speed Internet connection for maximum productivity, and perhaps may feature support staff such as receptionists.

These work arrangements are likely to become more popular with current trends towards greater customization of services and virtual organizing. Distributed work offers great potential for firms to reduce costs, enhance competitive advantage and agility, access a greater variety of scarce talents, and improve employee flexibility, effectiveness and productivity. It has gained in popularity in the West, particularly in Europe. While increasing in importance, distributed work has not yet gained widespread acceptance in Asia.

Virtual offices

Virtual offices are attractive to management because they reduce overheads, reduce office space needs, increase productivity, and reduce staff turnover. However, managers (whose roles are varied and not well defined) in telecommuting roles typically receive fewer promotions due to the lack of direct contact they need. From that aspect, telecommuting seems to work best for professionals such as engineers.

Coworking

Coworking is a social gathering of a group of people, who are still working independently, but who share a common working area as well as the synergy that can happen from working with talented people in the same space. Typically, a coworking facility offers hotdesking and other services with common office infrastructure, as well as social areas such as a coffee shop.

Microjobs

Telecommuters who begin working from home part-time for one company may acquire self-employed status through agreement or necessity. From that position an employee may seek more work from other sources. Ultimately, the size of the job unit may reduce, so that many more people are working for small periods of time for multiple clients. These short-time-period jobs have been named microjobs.

Telecommuting 2.0

Telecommuting 2.0 offers solutions to some of the problems that have kept telecommuting from being fully embraced by management and workers. Telecommuting 2.0 takes advantage of Remote Office Centers, which are distributed centers for leasing offices to individuals from multiple companies. A Remote Office Center provide professional grade network access, phone system, security system, mail stop and optional services for additional costs. ROCs are generally located in areas near where people live throughout population centers, so that workers do not have to commute more than a couple of miles. The telecommuter works in a real office but accesses the company network across the internet using a VPN just as in traditional telecommuting. Telecommuting 2.0 has the additional cost since the company will have to lease office space for the employee, but companies already pay for office space and network infrastructure in traditional office environments. The continuing increases in fuel costs are making telecommuting (either version 1.0 or 2.0) more and more attractive for companies and workers alike.

Potential drawbacks

  • Telecommuting has come to be viewed by some as more a "complement rather than a substitute for work in the workplace". Thus, some workers may find their work load increased to the point where they are under more stress than before. Distractions at home can have a similar effect, especially among workers who leave the office to be better able to care for small children and the infirm.
  • Fellow employees in the employer's office sometimes resent home telecommuters.
  • A telecommuter may lack the sense of loyalty to the company that he or she would have if working at an office.
  • Employees that work by telecommuting can lose space in their homes, possibly even suffer the cost of converting a room into an office.
  • Telecommuters need to be more adept at using their equipment as they have less access to a dedicated employee at the company whose job is to maintain that equipment.
  • Even when a company successfully implements telecommuting practices, increasing productivity and decreasing stress, they face an increased risk of confidential data loss and risks to data integrity resulting from the increased geographical diversity of their network and the loss of direct corporate control over the telecommuter's physical work environment. For instance, a major breach of privacy by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs resulted from a laptop being stolen from a worker who took his work home. The result was described as "potentially the largest loss of Social Security numbers to date.
  • Initially, managers may view the teleworker as experiencing a drop in productivity during the first few months. This drop occurs as "the employee, his peers, and the manager adjust to the new work regimen". The drop could also be accountable to inadequate office setup. Managers need to be patient and let the teleworker adapt. It can be claimed that as much as "70 minutes of each day in a regular office are wasted by interruptions, yakking around the photocopier, and other distractions". Eventually, productivity of the teleworker will climb.
  • Management needs to recognize the communication barriers that telecommuters experience. The feeling of alienation can be very difficult for the teleworker. The job should be clearly defined as well as its objectives. Performance measures should be thorough and apparent.
  • Managers need to be aware that although overhead decreases, the cost of technology becomes greater. Information Technology (IT) managers experience greater demands because of user requirements for remote access through laptops, personal digital assistants, and home computers. Use of non-standard software can create problems. Setting up security and virtual private networks increase the demands for IT.
  • Telecommuters can experience a loss of social community with coworkers and must be able to overcome feelings of isolation. Although this can be done by finding a social life away from the company work environment, it precludes the ability to develop close connections with those that share the common experience of the company, job, departments, and functions they may perform.
  • Traditional line managers are accustomed to managing by observation and not necessarily by results. This causes a serious obstacle in organizations attempting to adopt telecommuting. Liability and workers' compensation can become serious issues as well. Companies considering telecommuting should be sure to check on local legal issues, union issues, and zoning laws. Telecommuting should incorporate training and development that includes evaluation, simulation programs, team meetings, written materials, and forums. Information sharing should be considered synchronous in a virtual office and building processes to handle conflicts should be developed. Operational and administrative support should be redesigned to support the virtual office environment. Facilities need to be coordinated properly in order to support the virtual office and technical support should be coordinated properly. The conclusion for managers working within telecommuting organizations is that new approaches to "evaluating, educating, organizing, and informing workers should be adopted.

Popular telecommuting jobs

The proliferation of many smaller Internet companies has resulted in an increase of data entry related telecommuting jobs. The tight budgets of many of these companies make it economically impossible to carry full time staff. Contracting with home based freelancers is a cost effective way of meeting the demands of daily data entry tasks. These tasks may include the preparation of correspondence, reports, spreadsheets, lists, records and databases.

Some of the most popular telecommuting data entry jobs:

  • Litigation Coding: A growing category, litigation coding involves the capture of information from scanned documents to assist legal professionals in not only storing their documents electronically but locating the documents using keyword search criteria.
  • Medical and Legal Transcription: Medical and/or legal transcription requires the entry of information as heard on an audio file. Contractors listen to recordings and type everything they hear. There is specialized equipment available such as headphones and foot pedals that can slow down or speed up the recordings, as well as training courses that can teach and certify home workers in these types of data entry jobs.
  • Medical Coding: Ensures the proper entry and management of sensitive medical data. There are correspondence courses to train telecommuters in this work.

Telecommuting and Work At Home Scams

Unfortunately, work-at-home and telecommuting scams are common. Some of these job offers are scams appealing to a "get rich quick" audience but in fact require an investment up front with no pay off at the end. The problem is so pervasive that in 2006 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established Project False Hopes, a federal and state law enforcement sweep that targets bogus business opportunity and work at home scams. The crackdown involved more than 100 law enforcement actions by the FTC, the Department of Justice, the United States Postal Inspection Service, and law enforcement agencies in 11 states. In four of the new FTC cases alone, consumers lost more than $30 million. “Bogus business opportunities trample on Americans’ dreams of financial independence,” said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. "If a business opportunity promises no risk, little effort, and big profits, it almost certainly is a scam. These scams offer only a money pit, where no matter how much time and money is invested, consumers never achieve the riches and financial freedom promised.”

According to Christine Durst, there is a 48-to-1 scam ratio among work at home job leads on the internet. This statistic has been used in coverage by Good Morning America, CNN, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal.

See also

References

  • Verstraete, A. (1997, September 4). Levels of systems: personal, workgroup, and enterprise. Retrieved January 27, 2001, from http://www.smeal.psu.edu/misweb/infosys/ibistype.html#SHARED.
  • Whitten, J., Bentley, L., Dittman, K. (2001). Systems analysis and design methods. (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

External links

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