The Society of Human Resources Managers studied telecommuting 20 years ago. It was supposed to be the next great workforce development that allowed employees to perform vital business functions from the comfort of home, and allowed employers to enhance productivity and work/life balance, improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion and cut costs on office space.
At the time the biggest barrier was resistance by middle management, wrote Charles Grantham, president of the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work. Their “surveillance-type” of management style was the challenge.
However, the number of U.S. workers who telecommute has risen 115 percent since 2005, according to the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report. Before the coronavirus hit, 3.7 million workers — roughly 2.8 percent of the workforce — telecommuted.
That figure is growing as the tight talent market pushes more employers to adopt flexible working arrangements to accommodate the scheduling needs of hard-to-find-and-keep employees.
Overall, the number of employers offering a work-from-home option has grown by 40 percent in the past five years. Two-thirds of managers who offer telecommuting flexibility report those employees are more productive.
Global Workplace Analytics did a costs-and-benefits analysis and found some barriers to allowing work from home. One is management mistrust. Three of four in management say they trust those they manage; however, a third said they want to see them, to be sure.
Overcoming jealousy among other workers who either were not allowed to work at home or have the impression the telecommuters are not doing their share can be corrosive in the office.
Telecommuters must be self-directed and comfortable with technology and arrangements for remote tech support. They need a defined home office space and to understand that telecommuting is not a suitable replacement for day care unless they can schedule work hours around their children’s needs.
Those working at home need access to company systems, software and data. Companies need to address remote technical support issues and ensure remote workers are included in the latest upgrades.
GWA found that in some instances employment law and local zone problems are thorny problems. For example, when accidents occur in the homes of teleworkers, how does employer liability apply?
Finally, keeping those working at home included as an integral part of the team is a big priority. Managers must make sure they are invited to office events, key meetings and social occurrences.
The bottom line is, when we finally get a handle on this outbreak, there will be lots of lessons learned thanks to COVID-19.
Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer and columnist. TheBrunells@msn.com