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Concept of Remote User Sites
Telecommuting and telework make use of telecommunication technologies to allow individuals to work outside the traditional office or workplace, usually at home or in a mobile situation. The growth of this phenomenon since the early 1990s as shown a steady increase, particularly in North America. Dudman (2001) reports that between 1997 and 1999, 300,000 more people worked from home in the UK. By the end of 2000 it was estimated that there were 1.5 million teleworkers. Many companies have embraced the idea of telecommuting, including the likes of AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM. While work at the corporation premises is not likely to disappear, it is recognized that new forms of telecommunication, for example, voice and picture communication and groupware will probably make telecommuting more social in the future.
The future success of telecommuting will depend upon a number of issues. Smith (1997) highlights the following: The availability of bandwidth and fast Internet connections in a given country; the social methodologies for balancing work control and work freedom; the perceived values and economies in telecommuting; and the opportunities and need for working collaboratively across large distances, including globally. Smith (1997) argues that with the onset of the Internet and the Web as a de facto standard for groupware, it has allowed individuals to enroll with a virtual organization to access resources developed for members, implying they can work almost entirely through telecommunication with an occasional face-to-face meeting.
Technology for Telework
For a company to embrace the telecommuting philosophy a basic technological infrastructure is required. Smith (1997) outlines the basic technology that is required: Electronic Messaging, Private email, Public email, File Transfer Capability, Voice Mail, Basic Personal Computer Software, includes Basic word Processing, Spreadsheet, Database, Web Browser and Graphics software. Smith further suggested the following technologies, which she categorized as advanced technologies for telework: Client Server Integration, Bandwidth, Wireless Communication, Audio Conferencing, Video Conferencing, Mobile Commuting, Internet Access, World Wide Web, Intranet, and Extranet.
Advantages of Telecommuting
Both employers and employees have found telecommuting to be a mutually beneficial arrangement in many instances. Proponents cite several positive factors in particular:
Happier employee: Telecommuting arrangements can help workers realize a general improvement in their personal “quality of life.” They avoid long, stressful commutes, thus gaining more time for pleasurable activities and more flexibility for changeable tasks like child and elder care.
Increased retention of valued employee: Many businesses lose workers when those employees undergo significant life changes, such as starting a family or relocating to another region or state because of a spouse’s career. Telecommuting is one way in which a business may be able to continue to utilize the services of an otherwise unavailable worker. It is also touted as a tool that permits workers to minimize use of “personal days” in instances where they have to stay home and care for a sick child, etc.
Increased employee productivity: Business studies and anecdotal evidence both suggest that employees are often much more productive at home, where “drop-in” interruptions and meetings are not distractions. Instead, the teleworker can focus on the job at hand. Of course, productivity at home is directly related to the employee’s level of self-discipline and abilities.
Cost saving: Businesses can often gain significant savings in facilities costs like office space and parking space requirements when staff members telecommute.
Disadvantages of Telecommuting
But while telecommuting programs have been highly successful for many businesses of all shapes, sizes, and industry orientations, there are potential pitfalls associated with them. Commonly cited drawbacks include the following:
Lack of over sigh: Direct supervision of teleworkers is not possible.
Diminished productivity: Some people are unable to be productive in at-home work settings, either because of family distractions or their own limited capacity to focus on tasks when more pleasurable activities (bicycling, gardening, watching television, etc.) beckon.
Security problems. “The remote access needs of telecommuters and other mobile staff create a hole in security walls with every connection,” cautioned (McNeely Kevin, 2000) in Providence Business News.”Procedures should be implemented to allow employee access while keeping out unwanted intruders. This includes periodically updated password protection and informing employees concerning the need for remote access security.”
Isolation: “The freedom of working alone comes with a price the burden of solitude,” commented one executive in Association Management. “We all have wished for days where people would just leave us alone, and with telework, we get our wish in spades.” Partial teleworking arrangements, in which the employee spends a portion of each week (1-3 days) in the office and the remainder working from home, can sometimes be an effective means of addressing this problem.
Erosion of company culture and/or departmental morale: Many businesses include certain employees who have a major positive impact on the prevailing office environment. When these employees enter into telecommuting programs, their absence is often deeply felt by the staff members left behind. In some cases, this departure from the company’s everyday operations can even have a deleterious effect on the operation’s overall culture.
Loss of “brainstorming” ability: “Given that much of the value added to the production process in Western economies is at the ‘knowledge’ end of the spectrum, the dispersal of brains could be a problem,” wrote (Richard Thomas, 1999) in Management Today. “The informal bouncing around of ideas is difficult, or even impossible, without the face-to-face contact of a shared workplace.”
Perceived damage to career: A common perception among employees of businesses that embrace teleworking options is that telecommuters are placed at a disadvantage in terms of career advancement and opportunity. Certainly, some professional avenues such as supervisor positions may be shut off to workers who want to continue telecommuting, but employers should make every effort to avoid an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective from taking shape.
Legal vulnerability: Some analysts have expressed concern that some employer liability issues regarding telecommuting practices have yet to be completely settled. They cite issues such as employer liability for home-office accidents under common law; applicability of the employer’s insurance coverage when they work at home; and responsibility for equipment located in the home as particular concerns.
Dudman, J. (2001) Have you done your homework? Computer Weekly, 30 (33), pp.30-33
Smith, S.M. (1997) Telework: Moving To A Virtual Organization For the 21st Century http://www.scis.nova.edu/~smiths/mmis626/delb.html ;accessed 4th September 2002;
Thomas, Richard. “The World is Your Office.” Management Today. July 1999.
McNeely, Kevin. “Pitfalls of an Electronic Workplace.” Providence Business Journal. March 27, 2000.
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