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Real Work @ Home

Less commuting with savings in time, stress and expense are just some of the many advantages to both the worker and the employer with a decentralized workforce. However, available space is a considera...


September 1, 2007
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Less commuting with savings in time, stress and expense are just some of the many advantages to both the worker and the employer with a decentralized workforce. However, available space is a consideration and it takes significant discipline to learn to work in a home environment, with all the attendant distractions and temptations. I have worked in a home office for 15 years — initially, I dressed in jacket and tie to ensure that I had the proper mindset for going into work. After some months, I found that just going into my home office put me into the right frame of mind. For me anyway, the advantages of the home office far outweigh the distractions.

So what type of workers would you expect to work in a home office? Anyone who has access to the principal object of his work, as well as all the necessary support. People who work in computer sciences, in sales or in secretarial are the ones who first come to mind, but there are chemical plants using remote workforces. There is a hydrogen peroxide plant in Norway that is operated from a control room in Sweden — the maintenance staff is on site, but the operations department is at another location in Sweden. Think of the work that you do and the technology available. Could your meetings be teleconferences? Could your analyses be done on the computer and shared through email? Could you brainstorm by telephone?

There are also great advantages to the employer outside of cutting back on expensive office space. An employee in a home office arrives at his office calm and relaxed and ready to work. For myself, I find that I put in longer hours of work with less distraction, concentrating on projects for long lengths of time with less interruption from colleagues. My own particular line of work often requires deep concentration on a particular set of calculations or an analysis. These distractions can cause a longer delay than the actual conversation itself, as I must take the time to ‘catch up’ to where I was when the interruption occurred. Despite spending considerably more time working, I also find I have more time with my family – the only loss is the unproductive time that had been spent commuting.

Another advantage is decreased absenteeism. A telecommuter is less likely to feel too sick to come into work when he just has to walk down the hall. Additionally, a telecommuter cannot spread his illness to other workers. I have had colleagues who worked in their home offices while recovering from major surgery! Studies have shown that workers who telecommute are much less likely to change employers and are more satisfied in their jobs. In addition, it is often possible to avoid costs related to relocating employees — it is estimated that up to three dollars are saved for every dollar spent on a telecommuting program. Less tangible benefits are in items such as disaster prevention programs, as a distributed, telecommuting workforce is less affected by a localized disaster.

How do you manage a remote workforce that may be dispersed across your entire business region? For those who can adapt, it takes trust on both sides. There are always concrete ways to measures as to what work is being done or how much is accomplished. I do recall a colleague whose boss called him every day at both the start and end of his shift, to ensure he was there — and the boss was three time zones away! Most managers do not resort to such tactics and one of my previous managers told me that he could either trust me or fire me, because he certainly could not keep track of me!

As well, the employee must trust his superiors and feel that he is being kept informed and current. One complaint I have heard from telecommuters is that they feel isolated. In a conventional office, you are immersed in an environment in which news and information is all around you; a telecommuter must develop other methods to maintain the same level of involvement in internal matters. I am a great believer in communication — free flow of information is essential to any business. Therefore, I spend much time deliberately reaching out via phone or email to remote colleagues. Some of it is just the equivalent of ‘how are the wife and kids…’ — these are part of the normal, human need to be connected to those with whom we work and interact and can be as important as any other business-related communication. Whatever business we are in, ultimately we deal with people and relationships are important.

Many large companies are moving more of their workforce to telecommuting just for the advantages listed above. Some examples are Bell Canada, IBM, the Canadian government, Nortel and the Bank of Canada. These companies saved money while getting happier employees — and I can certainly testify to the “happier employees” part!

If you have anything to add or would like to suggest another topic, please contact the author. Dan Davies is a freelance writer. He can be reached at dan.davies@shaw.ca

1 Gartner Dataquest Survey, published June 2004