As information technology continues to advance, allowing more people to work outside the walls of a typical office environment and even the traditional 9-to-5 workday, an increasing number of workplaces are implementing teleworking (also referred to as telecommuting or working from home) as an employment option. About 20 percent of workers around the world spend at least part of their workweek doing their jobs from home.[i] And in the United States, 84 of the top 100 Forbes companies (in 2013) offer teleworking benefits.[ii]
Most studies on teleworking highlight positive benefits for employees, managers, agencies and even the environment. Research and anecdotal evidence show telework programs can be more cost-effective, boost morale, reduce worker stress, and even improve worker output and creativity. Studies reveal that people who work from home are generally more productive than their office counterparts. Likely contributing factors include: fewer interruptions or distractions than found at the traditional office, more effective time management (e.g. e-mail can be time-managed more effectively and is less apt to digressions), a sense of empowerment and commitment from feeling like a trusted employee (leading to higher employee job satisfaction), potentially more flexible hours (allowing people to work when they are most productive or around family obligations that may otherwise keep them out of the workforce), and longer hours (many employees work during the time they would have otherwise spent commuting).[iii]
Teleworking also forces management to maintain a focus on measuring employee performance based on results/work products rather than simply presence in the office. Agencies can also generate significant cost savings related to reduced office space needs, energy/electricity, and turnover costs. In addition teleworking can increase accessibility to new labor pools, including persons with disabilities or workers considering retirement. And as for the greater environment reduced fuel consumption, air pollution, and traffic congestion are a few noticeable impacts.
In 2013, Stanford University conducted the first randomized experiment on working from home, run in a 16,000 employee Chinese firm, CTrip (a Chinese equivalent of Expedia) and found that telework groups actually outperformed in-office groups by 15 percent, and with a higher quality of work. Teleworkers also reported substantially higher work satisfaction and their job attrition rates fell by over 50%. Interestingly, after the 9-month trial, half of those who’d worked from home chose to go back to the office. The study concluded that the peace and quiet of working from home can feel like isolation for some.[iv]
For individual workers some fear reduced visibility will lead to a lesser chance for promotion. Also some cite challenges with self-discipline in meeting deadlines, increased work-at-home costs, feelings of “cabin fever,” and a greater chance for overworking when the “office” is always at their fingertips (impacting work-life balance). Other teleworkers find they are unable to resist distractions, are not able to work independently, may more easily have conflicts and miscommunications with other staff, and miss out on the camaraderie that stems from working with others day after day-feeling more isolated both socially and within the agency.[v]
In my personal opinion, having been a teleworker for nearly a year I feel strongly that it is indeed a privilege and that its success or failure really depends on an individual’s disposition, work style preferences, work ethic, commitment to the organization, the type of work one does (e.g. is it conducive to teleworking), having an appropriate home work environment that is appropriate for teleworking including dependable equipment (e.g. computer, internet, phone, microphone and speakers for video conferencing) and established dependent care outside the home, a strong commitment to stick to a regular work schedule, making efforts to maintain relationships with co-workers, integrating opportunities for in-person connection with other staff when possible, and working closely with one’s supervisor in terms of defining the work expectations and objectives as well as developing a plan for maintaining and measuring productivity.
Overall, telework is rated as a top perk for employees seeking and retaining employment, and thousands of organizations have already successfully adopted teleworking and have made available “best practices” that use technological and cultural solutions to address the security, communications, collaboration, managerial, and social aspects of remote work.[vi] For more information on teleworking specifically in the human services arena please see the literature review San Diego State University MSW Student, Geraldine O’Sullivan completed for the Academy for Professional Excellence’s SACHS Program last year here: http://theacademy.sdsu.edu/programs/SACHS/literature/SACHS_Literature_Review_Telework_Report_2_2013.pdf .
[iv] http://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastianbailey/2012/09/19/does-working-from-home-work/ and http://www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/WFH.pdf
[v] Ruth & Chaudhry, 2008
Karissa Hughes, MSW, is a graduate of the MSW/Administrative Track program and currently is a Research and Development Coordinator at the School’s Academy for Professional Excellence.