A paradox is becoming more pronounced in the world's developed nations: while their economies move increasingly toward digital data exchange, much of the culture surrounding work and production remains stuck in a centralized, mass-production mode. The most visible shift toward the new economy—telecommuting—is still receiving mixed reviews from private and public sectors.
"Most current work arrangements still bear the imprint of the Industrial Revolution," Penn State University researchers Ravi Gajendran and David Harrison wrote in a comprehensive study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology ( http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/apl9261524.pdf). The study's results were made public in November 2007. "Employees mainly transact their time, rather than their products, with employing firms. That time is tightly bound to task and place."
The industrial-era mass-production model is undergoing a massive transformation, of course—especially in knowledge work. However, two decades into the era of packet-based communications, the global business culture is still grappling with the ambiguities surrounding telework. That struggle will intensify as a new generation of tech-savvy workers begins to replace office-oriented retirees.
"You have a huge workforce coming out of college that wears a Bluetooth headset all day," says Mitch Hershkowitz, converged-communications practice manager for the North American offices of technology consulting firm Dimension Data. Hershkowitz says these young dynamos are immersed in the digital-anywhere-anytime lifestyle.
"They want to work where they want to work, whether it's at home, in a hotel, on a park bench, in the office once in a while. You'd better be ready to enable them to work when, where, and how they want," he says. "The folks I talk to know that, even the most dyed-in-the-wool managers still wearing blue jackets and red ties."
Unfortunately, the evidence supporting or disproving the benefits of telecommuting has often been statistically unreliable or contradictory, according to Gajendran and Harrison. "Despite the growing importance and widely spreading practice of telecommuting," they wrote, "reviews of the last two decades of research have concluded that it is unknown whether telecommuting is good or bad for employees."
In a recent highly-publicized case, even companies that have reported significant benefits from telecommuting can change strategies abruptly. AT&T, long considered a leader in telecommuting practices for its US employees, is now calling longtime remote workers back to its offices.
AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp says the new policy is the result of consolidation of four companies—the "legacy" AT&T, BellSouth, SBC, and Cingular Wireless—into the "new" AT&T. The four old companies, Sharp says, had different policies "for everything, not just telecommuting," and the callback is part of an evaluation of how best to distribute the new company's workforce. Rather than a return to old-school management policy, Sharp says the new AT&T now has office space in areas where the legacy company didn't. Hence, it might make sense to consolidate employees into company-owned facilities.
"AT&T is a new company, a nationwide company," Sharp says. "We now have physical presence everywhere in the country, where we did not before."
The exact scope of the new strategy isn't something AT&T executives wish to reveal. However, they say the new strategy isn't "punishment" for the former telecommuters. Sharp says published reports of 10,000 to 12,000 workers being called back to offices is "absurd" and that about 150,000 AT&T employees will still be able to telework in some capacity. Telework is a broad term that includes work from remote locations such as hotels, airports, or home, via phone or computer. It's distinguished from telecommuting, which implies work from a fully equipped home office.
Chuck Wilsker, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Telework Coalition ( http://www.telcoa.org), says the AT&T move appears to be a case of old-guard management, regardless of the company's stated reasons. "They had a whole bunch of people working from home, and the company seemed to run rather well," Wilsker says. "Why take what appears to be a lot of people and tell them your choice is to come back in to an office before you complete the evaluation?"
However, both Wilsker and Sharp agree that AT&T's new strategy is unlikely to affect other companies that might be considering establishing or broadening their own telecommuting practice's. Wilsker also sees more firms motivated to offer a telecommuting option as rising gasoline prices and heavy traffic in many US urban areas deliver a double whammy to commuters. Add in the potential benefits of reduced real estate costs, improved business continuity plans in case of emergency, and the public-relations angles of telecommuting's environment-friendliness, and the forces in favor of increasing telecommuting seem strong.
Gajendran and Harrison titled their study "The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown about Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences." One goal of their research was to lend credence to a wide range of studies of varying statistical quality and often contradictory conclusions concerning the pros and cons of telecommuting. Gajendran and Harrison dug into 46 studies in natural settings involving 12,883 employees. The studies included some that had been widely disseminated and some that had never been published. The wider range of material gave them a more holistic view of telecommuting, Gajendran says.
"We're not saying telecommuting is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and we're not saying it's terrible," he says. "Like most things that are worthy of researching, it depends on the person telecommuting, the environment around them, and the manager and coworkers around them. Put it all together, and you get a much more complex picture of telecommuting."
While the study focused on the psychological effects of telecommuting on individuals, the authors also concluded that employers realized overall positives from offering telecommuting: "Increased job satisfaction and lower turnover intent and role stress were associated with this type of distributed work arrangement, as were higher supervisor ratings and archival records of job performance," they wrote. However, interestingly enough, the workers' own conclusions that they were more productive were not statistically proved.
Perhaps the most surprising result of the Penn State study is that high-intensity telecommuting (four to five days a week working away from the office) didn't strain the relationship between the telecommuter and his or her manager. It did diminish the sense of teamwork between telecommuters and coworkers. However, Gajendran and Harrison believe this might change as telecommuting becomes more widespread and new forms of teamwork emerge.
Gajendran also says, as you might expect, that telecommuting enhanced workers' sense of work/family balance. The sense of balance increased with the number of days spent away from the office. Telecommuting workers also reported more job satisfaction because they felt they had more autonomy in choosing where and when they did assigned tasks. In fact, Gajendran says, "if employers design a telecommuting program such that you're working from home but have no sense of autonomy, then a lot of the benefits from telecommuting won't come about."
The study's results were all based on US-centric studies because, Gajendran says, "the research on the phenomenon is being done in the US—and telecommuting tends to happen more in the US—that's my estimate."
Coming up with reliable numbers is difficult. Wilsker says estimates about the number of telecommuters in the US range from 4 million to 40 million, depending on the definition any given study implements. He estimates that the number is likely around 25 million telecommuters, with another 20 million workers who own their own work-at-home businesses.
In raw numbers, the US might have more telecommuters than Europe, but other data suggests that the US workplace culture might lag on a percentage basis. A mid-2007 Dimension Data survey of 390 IT leaders and 524 workers worldwide showed that 75 percent of French firms offered telecommuting, while 55 percent of US firms did. Employers' motivations also varied by nation. US firms said employee retention was their major motivator in offering telecommuting, while European firms said increased productivity was their major motivator.
"Europeans have done business in that fashion quite some time," Hershkowitz says. "They're a little more laid back and don't work quite as many hours. So for them it's how to be more productive with the hours they have. In the US, some of us work 60–80 hours a week, so the focus here is how to make somebody happy or retain them. If I can cut my 80-hour worker's commute from two to four hours to zero per day, and make him happy, that can be a positive factor.'"
According to the Telework Association, the UK's telecommuting advocacy organization, the number of UK teleworkers climbed from 2.3 million to 3.1 million, or about 8 percent of all UK-based workers, between 1997 and 2005. National legislation mandating that employers consider flexible work arrangements for parents of children under six years of age was a major driver.
Shirley Borrett, the Telework Association's director of development, says the British experience with telework shows that small businesses often thrive with telework because employers and workers share closer, informal bonds. Large employers have the resources to institute formal telework policies, but mid-sized businesses are lagging behind in establishing telework options.
In Japan, another culture notable for long hours, private firms and the Japanese government are encouraging increased telecommuting to enhance work/family balance. In February 2007, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported the national government planned to offer tax incentives for companies that installed thin-client workstations in telecommuters' homes ( http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/20070205TDY02007.htm).
IBM Japan has offered telecommuting capabilities since 2000, according to company spokesman Motoyuki Suzuki. Originally offered to employees with documented childcare or eldercare needs, the company extended the program to IBM Japan employees in December 2001. Suzuki estimates 2,000 IBM Japan employees use the telecommuting option.
In March 2007, Matsushita Electric Industrial offered 30,000 of its Japanese employees a telecommuting option, also. While news reports heralded the announcement, one former Matsushita contractor wrote that the company had in recent years not been mindful of contract terms that stipulated hours to be contacted, holidays, and so on for home-based contractors ( http://www.japantoday.com/jp/news/402121).
Dimension Data's Hershkowitz says more empirical studies like Penn State's and his company's should show the most hidebound executive that telecommuting of some sort for many workers is inevitable.
"One of the things I hear from my clients is, 'What's the hard dollar saving?'" Hershkowitz says. "They can see it when they switch to VoIP, but don't see it in unified communication and the practices it allows. We can show them attitudes are changing and show them studies like Penn State's, and say this is a reality that takes that soft cost savings and kind of quantifies it for them."
However, once shown empirical evidence, managers still have to exercise managerial skill to make telecommuting worthwhile.
"Maybe you can get away with being a bad manager if everyone comes and sits in front of you every day," Borrett says. "But if they work flexibly you have to be a good manager, communicate well, know your people, provide an environment that supports them, and measure results."
Cite this article: Greg Goth, "Telework: Phoning It In," IEEE Distributed Systems Online vol. 9, no. 1, 2008, art. no. 0801-mds2008010002.