Some of my own work, because there’s space this October :)

Here is an article evaluating the feasibility of telecommuting as a method of improving ecology and worker morale, summarizing research and interviews I conducted during an informal public online survey. I explore reasons cited by respondents as to why telecommuting has taken off more slowly than expected and look into potential ways to lessen the effect of these negative factors.

Previously published this spring in Global Affairs’ free academic international relations webzine, and reprints are okay. Link to Global Affairs:

In a Gallup poll conducted near the end of April 2008, United States residents expressed that rising gas prices were one of their main concerns during the current Western economic slowdown. Pollsters asked respondents to categorize issues as ‘crises’ or ‘major problems’ (or minor problems, or not problems at all.) Over forty percent of those polled considered gas prices a crisis, and over half considered them a ‘major problem.’ Gas pricing was more often described as a crisis than mortgage foreclosures, healthcare costs, or job losses.

With these consumer concerns, some employees and employers have looked into telecommuting as a potential method for saving money while also reducing pollution created by daily driving. Telecommuting involves working somewhere other than one’s company office – one’s home, a local coffeeshop, a park – and then communicating online with managers and coworkers.

At first glance telecommuting seems a workable business model: technically possible, offering many benefits to employees and lessening the need for driving. However, United States companies seem slow to adopt the idea of working in a remote capacity, and most employees still commute every day to a physical location.

To explore the feasibility of telecommuting, I posted informal requests on Craigslist throughout April for people to share positive and negative experiences with the business model. I received a good number of positive responses, but other comments suggested more work will be required to overcome technical, social, and cultural challenges if telecommuting is to become practical.

Some corporations, such as Cisco Systems, a communications network firm in San Jose, have embraced the concept. Cisco advertises its openness to telecommuting on the corporate social responsibility area of its website, stating the technology helps employees maintain a healthy balance between work and the rest of their lives. A Cisco employee described how the company has installed online conference software, instant messaging, etc to allow for a virtual workplace, technology that functions well for them but may not be available at other, smaller businesses.

Employees at Cisco point out noticeable improvements in their quality of life because of telecommuting. Working in a remote capacity saves workers money on business attire and lunches as well as gasoline, and allows employees to travel and set their own schedules so long as they complete work in a timely fashion and stay in touch online.

People with other companies facilitating telecommuting also report enhanced working conditions and enjoy the flexibility. An operations manager at a large Atlanta firm, who requested anonymity, lives in Seattle and has telecommuted for over two years, supervising another employee in the United Kingdom. She stays in contact with management and clients via conference calls and says she’s “able to put laundry in and run short errands during the day – no more weekends stuck doing housework!”

Management seems very satisfied with her productivity while working from home, and she recently received a promotion as well as a merit-based raise for excellent work. She says she actually accomplishes more from home than inside the office, as she’s away from the distractions posed by coworkers who want to socialize and meetings not directly relevant to her work.

Other employees and managers worry that employee distraction while away from a controlled, professional office environment may not be so easily overcome. Employees also sometimes complained of loneliness and disconnection from other professionals with whom they could share ideas. Some employees have combated loneliness and distraction through setting up informal networks of telecommuters working in similar fields who gather in coffeeshops, warehouses, or meeting rooms during the workday and encourage each other to stay focused. One Portland network, Jelly, provides fee-paying members 24-7 access to a large drop-in center in an old warehouse with DSL Internet, WiFi, couches and meeting rooms and a small kitchen.

Many involved in such networks report enhanced productivity and fewer worker distractions compared to telecommuting without the physical social support. However, some employees still felt the makeshift offices could not yet totally replicate the social and networking advantages of the normal corporate environment which people have come to expect. At the very least the telecommuting networks would have to become more widespread and effectively publicized, as most people who responded to my message did not even mention them.

Monica Marquis, a photo retouching professional in Cupertino, California, effectively began telecommuting when she and her husband switched to online freelance work. The shift involved a pay cut for them both, but she considers that sacrifice worth it for their new flexible schedule. As for lost productivity due to distraction, she says she spends even more hours on the job than when she worked in the office.

“I work early mornings and into the evenings and weekends…but it is because I can spread the work load out over that long day. Somehow it doesn’t feel like that many hours when I can have the freedom to run errands, prepare dinner, take naps, etc.” she explained.

Employees who telecommute can also come into the office occasionally for meetings and networking. Over half of the people I spoke with mentioned office visits. Some dropped by every so often to catch up with coworkers or attend critical meetings in person, while others telecommuted only part time. Interspersing workdays at one’s laptop with days in the office can provide some gas and pollution savings while still allowing for face-to-face interaction.

The Seattle operations manager also mentioned some additional difficulties she’s faced by not interacting regularly with coworkers in person. In the early stages of her transition to telecommuting, people would forget to send important information her way when they could not physically see her in the office.

She was able to work through this problem by reaching out to contact other people online, specifically requesting certain information and reminding others what she needed. This suggests that perhaps employee training programs and protocols might smooth out some difficulties with telecommuting.

One of the main strengths of all of the telecommuting situations I observed is the potential for flexibility. Each person’s work-from-home situation functioned slightly differently, adapted to the company and employee’s individual needs.

This allows for a variety of creative responses to the challenges of redefining work for the digital age, and suggests the future possibility of overcoming the technical and personal obstacles telecommuting poses. With the current global attention to environmental issues, the ongoing economic slowdown affecting gas prices and employees’ discretionary income, and the development of new software technology, I predict various forms of telecommuting will rise in popularity in the United States.

Cristina Deptula

Freelance Writer

Museum docent – Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center.

UC Davis, California. BA in Comparative World Literature, Minor in Biological Sciences.

Gallup Inc. (2008) “Economic Issues Reaching Crisis Level for Many Americans” May 1, 2008

CNN (2008) “Next phase of working at home: leaving home” Thom Patterson, CNN News, April 9, 2008