Ideas & Debate

Telecommuting is gaining traction

Work is slowly becoming something you do, not
Work is slowly becoming something you do, not somewhere you go. /Reuters 

There’s no stopping it. If the latest generation has its way, the work force that fuels tomorrow’s small businesses may largely be a stay-at-home crowd.

According to WorldatWork, a global human resources association, the number of full-time employees performing their jobs remotely at least part of the time rose 39 per cent from 2006 through 2008, tracking in at 17.2 million people.

A practice that is both loved and despised, telecommuting continues to take root, as high-speed Internet connections and sophisticated hand-held PDA devices become increasingly pervasive and affordable, and twentysomethings comfortable in the virtual world break down traditional nine-to-five work patterns.

“Gen Y’s and Millennials are coming out and entering the work force and demanding flexibility,” says Marcia G. Rhodes, WorldatWork spokeswoman.

“They’re very technology-savvy. Work has become something you do, not a place you go to.”

The trend makes for a hard-won battle that has prompted a backlash from a variety of companies. Some managers complain they lose control over work schedules, have difficulty evaluating performance and must endure jealousy by those left behind in the office, among other problems.

In Silicon Valley, where telecommuting is rampant among tech workers, there’s even an Internet petition organised by “Managers Against Telecommuting,” whose website claims to have collected more than 5,400 signatures in favour of banning the practice. The group could not be reached for comment.

Not surprisingly, the ages of workers performing their jobs from remote locations is getting younger, according to the February WorldatWork report.

Eighteen to 34-year-olds comprised some 42 per cent, up 4 points over the two-year period, while those in the 35 to 54-year old bracket fell 4 points to make up 48 per cent.

Work-life balance
In addition to better technology, rising fuel costs and demands for work-life balance were also believed to be leading drivers behind the trend, according to the survey of more than 1,000 adults, which was conducted by the Dieringer Research Group.

Angela Redding is typical of the movement. The 27-year-old professional began working remotely within six months of landing a job as vice president of strategy and business development for the boutique New York-based public relations firm Coltrin & Associates a year and a half ago.

During the course of her tenure with the firm, Redding, who has been on the move due to her husband’s career as a physician’s assistant, has lived in Pennsylvania, Utah, Montana, and now, California.

“It was one of the things that really attracted me,” she says. “Luckily, I have a great employer who is willing to let me move.”

Redding says her need for in-person appearances at meetings is dictated by the firm’s clients. “There’s still so much value in face time,” she says.

Says firm founder and Chairman Stephen Coltrin: “Great people sometimes have to move to a different geography, their circumstances change, they have children, all kinds of things happen. Our philosophy is to tailor our relationship with our employees around their needs to the extent that we can.”

That scheduling flexibility has led to unexpected benefits such as the ability to serve clients in more diverse markets, says Coltrin, who has brokered flexible work arrangements with about one-fifth of his 20-person operation.

Top talent
Indeed, attracting and retaining top talent - even in a downturn - appears to be another of the catalysts behind the move toward increased off-site work relationships.

“Charlottesville (Virginia) is a small town. You couldn’t expect everybody to pick up and move their entire families,” says Jacob D’Aniello, president of DoodyCalls, a growing franchise business dedicated to the cleanup of canine messes from residential yards.

“With any business you want the best people you can find for the position.”

Accordingly, three of DoodyCall’s 10 corporate employees work remotely, making use of Internet phone systems and rallying several times weekly for virtual meetings that include a Tuesday morning ‘huddle’ where they stay apprised of individual developments.

“I’ve talked to dozens, if not more, companies that wouldn’t be doing as well as they are if they weren’t allowed to go out and hire talent regardless of where they are,” says Kate Lister, an expert on telecommuting and co-author of Undress For Success: The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home. “It’s the companies that accept this now that are going to win in the future.”

But experts are quick to note the practice is not for everyone. Success depends largely on the willingness of a company to abandon longstanding punch-clock measures for evaluating productivity and focus instead on outcomes.

The writer is a Reuters columnist