Working away from work: Telecommuting
This article is a part of a series of blog posts that served as an assignment for the course titled Social Implications of Computing (CIS*3000) during my undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph. It was originally published on a free Wordpress.com site I had created for the course.
Observing the course of history and all the great inventions and discoveries of man, one might pose the question, ‘what motivates man?’ In fact, it is a very good question. What is that spark that has always ignited the fire? What has motivated us to advance this far in technology; what has inspired man to develop solutions to increase efficiency tremendously? The answer – his laziness. It is really interesting (actually, more ironic) how we tend to put in the effort to develop something that eliminates the need for the effort that was put in. The invention of computers is a prime example. All jokes aside, the advent of computers over the last few decades has gone so far as to change the entire lifestyle of mankind. People are putting in much less work and are getting much more done. For example, publishing this very blog is far more productive on a computer’s word processor rather than with paper and pen. With all this in mind, it is well worth noting an interesting phenomenon – how computers and related technology have completely changed the way people work.
Since the industrial revolution, almost all jobs have required workers to travel to a particular environment, within which the respective work must be done. For some, this environment is the office, which for most people also turns out to be at a great distance from home. However, computers and the Internet have given birth to ‘Telecommuting‘, which essentially eliminates the need to physically commute to a certain place in order to be productive. This is achieved through the various telecommuting links – Instant Messaging, E-Mail, word processing, database managers, video conferencing, and many more. You are most probably thinking about how all these links contribute to your productivity in your personal life; you are now probably marveling at all of this. Being able to call your office and home the same thing can be pretty tempting. However, you would be surprised to know that not everybody would agree with you. There are many people who are unsure of telecommunication; some are even uncomfortable with equating the home with the office. In fact, you might be one of them. All this is within good reason, as there certainly are cons to telecommuting, just as with every other piece of technology. To remove some of this vagueness, let us go further in detail and first understand how telecommuting can be beneficial.
Work @ Home
All the benefits of telecommuting stem from its root concept – working at home.
More Time for Productivity
Consider this situation: you are an editor of a magazine. and you work a typical ‘9 to 5’ shift. All you require is a word processor to write and edit articles, which when completed would then be saved on to your company’s computer’s hard drive. Last but not the least, you spend 4 hours of travel time in total (2 hours to, 2 hours from). Now, taking note of your travel time, you would need to wake up sometime around 6 AM at the very least, and make sure you reach your office at least 15 minutes early. Then when you are done at 5 PM, assuming you had a perfect way back home (which is most often not the case due to traffic), you would be home by 7 PM. It should be very obvious how this routine can get really tiring. Having to wake up as early as 6 AM would require you to go to bed early for a reasonable amount of sleep. This reduces the amount of time allocated for recreational activities.
All of these contribute to an exhausted individual; you wouldn’t be working at full efficiency every day because you would simply be tired from all the commuting and its factors. Keeping all of this in mind, now consider that you had a computer with an Internet connection at home. Since all you require for your job is a word processor, you do not have the need to travel to a particular location; all computers come with basic word processors, and proprietary ones can be purchased at reasonable prices. As you can see, by being able to work at your home, you would be able to save time and energy, thereby enabling you to increase your efficiency of your work.
Choose When You Work
As mentioned before, being able to work at home eliminates the amount of time needed to travel to the workplace. This also directly results in flexible hours; the office is not open 24/7, however the home surely is. You get to choose when to work according to a schedule tailored to your needs. This convenience also increases efficiency, as you would be able to choose to work when you are able to focus at your best level. This results in a potentially balanced life; something that is very important for humans. Work is the main reason people have less time for ‘life’; they’re just too busy and stressed. This is because people’s jobs take up most of their day, simply because of their schedules. But when this is controlled, one would find that more time can be made for other activities. All this results in a healthier individual, which again, directly and positively influences work efficiency.
Less Gas = More Money
Over the past two decades, gas prices have steadily been increasing. Currently (November 3rd, 2010), the price of gas for Ontario is approximately 105.018 cents per litre on average (the average price from the linked web page is bound to change). Cutting off commuting directly results in more savings for employees; the lesser you travel, the lesser gas you need. One thing in particular worth noting is that workers don’t just commute using their own vehicles or car pooling. A huge chunk of workers uses public transportation, like the GO Transit in Canada. Currently, GO serves almost 55 million riders every year; 180000 train riders every day. The important fact is that at least 96% of their train ridership is to and from the Union Station in Downtown Toronto; a huge, if not the biggest, business sector in Canada. If employees were allowed to at least work a few days at home every month, their savings on transportation (in some cases, even for the employer) alone would be huge!
Work @ Anywhere
With the significant evolution of mobile technology, working on the go is now part of the definition of ‘telecommuting’. Laptops have replaced Desktop Personal Computers by businessmen due to their portability; workers can manage their e-mails and browse the Internet due to WiFi hotspots; word processing, database management, presentations, and other regular business-related applications can be performed from their Laptops; and Laptops have reduced in size and weight to a significant extent over the past few years, even as to give birth to a whole new subcategory of Laptops – Netbooks. Smartphones, a subcategory of mobile phones, are trying to port all that is capable on a personal/laptop computer to a device that is smaller than your palm. Why do you often see men and women in formal attire constantly fiddling with their BlackBerries whenever you go for a walk? For an answer to that question, check out this success story for IBM with its partnership with RIM (Research In Motion).
Being able to work anywhere gives true freedom to workers when scheduling work hours. If you wanted to, you could take your laptop or your smartphone to a Raptors game just to finish off a couple of e-mails. Why do something that ineffective though? Just because you can.
Work = Home
You can clearly see the many benefits and advantages of telecommuting. But every coin carrying any monetary value has two sides to it. When the very home you live in becomes your workplace, there are definitely compromises that need to be made by both the employee and the employer.
Trust and Mistrust
A prominent issue with working at home is trust between the company and the employee. In this interesting research paper by S. A. Whiteman and G. N. Dick of University of New South Wales, Australia, the writers discuss the issue of trust – ‘a lack of trust is a management attitude that influences telecommuting because it is believed that managers cannot manage what they cannot see, or that out of sight, employees will engage in opportunistic behaviour.’ As an employer, you would expect your employees to work at their best during their work hours. This can be monitored in the setting of an Office through periodic checks (simply entering an employee’s workspace), performance calculators, or simply just keeping in touch with your employees. However, when employees are working at home, it is impossible to tell if they are working honestly and efficiently, except through looking at results, which can be costly if the employee was not doing his/her job well. This issue of trust is generally with relatively new employees, but long-time workers also have the potential to abuse previous trust. The inability for an employer to trust an employee and vice versa leads to bad results for the company.
Now the main reason employers might not be able to trust employees who work at home would be, as mentioned in the paper, the question if employees are really doing work-related stuff. This is directly related to distractions for the employee. Not all employees who perform low intentionally ‘engage in opportunistic behaviour’; many workers have families, and mostly live with them. Working at a home environment means that you would be exposed to various distractions; lawnmowers, vehicles, neighbours, and even distractions within the house. Unfortunately, all of these distractions have the potential of completely negating the efficiency obtained from working at home rather than commuting to the office.
Probably the most significant issue with telecommuting is security. Home computers are generally loaded with much less security-intensive software (Anti-virus, Anti-spyware, etc.) compared to computers at a company’s workplace. There is a much bigger threat for sensitive data at home computers due to being more vulnerable to viruses; this is a major problem for the employer. Wireless networks and firewalls are not impenetrable, thanks to the ease of surpassing standard WEP and WPA encryptions. Public Wifi Hotspots are even worse, especially unregulated and insecure ones.
Also, related to trust issues, employees who work at home under no supervision can choose to sell valuable company information to competitors, surveyors, etc. It would surely be a cheap shot to your jawbone if you found out that your employee sold out to the very same competitor he was putting down a few weeks ago. Thus, the security of sensitive information can easily be compromised due to the aspects of telecommuting.
Telecommuting has been discussed quite frequently in the past, and for good reason. From this analysis, you can see why you would and why you wouldn’t want to telework. But what is really fascinating is the statistics – has telecommuting increased significantly? Or has it been frowned upon a lot more? According to a 2007 update from statscan, the growth in telecommuting has actually stalled. Over a course of 5 years from 2000 – 2005, the number of employees working at home reduced from 10.2% to 9.8%, and the number of self-employed workers based at home increased from 49.5% to 54.6%. This increase is very small considering the benefits of being self-employed and working at home. In 2008, only 2.5 million considered to be based at home (excluding the self-employed). That is just 2% of the workforce.
The statscan update states that possible reasons for this stalling in telecommuting are the increase in security concerns after 9/11, improvement in transportation networks, and general re-evaluation of the pros and cons of telecommuting. However, this part only covers working at home. The update does state that improvement in mobile technology has decreased working at home, but this implies that working on the go has increased, thereby evening out the scores for telecommuting.
In conclusion, you can say that telecommuting isn’t as appealing as it used to be decades ago, prior to so much advancement in technology. Regardless, the concept of being able to earn money from home continues to fascinate many individuals.
Sometimes, working at home fascinates individuals to the harmful extent of getting scammed. For an interesting read, do find the time to read these articles: