I read an article in Fast Company entitled Robots Are Changing the Future of Telecommuting written by Ariel Schwartz in which she describes her experience with using a robot as her presence in the office. The robot is, as she describes it, “a hybrid of WALL-E and a Segway“. Although she was in her home office, the robot represented her physical presence in the corporate office in New York. She sat in on meetings, she made her way through the hallways, she stood beside peoples desks and she made her way around the office remotely. To her the advantages were that when she did visit the office in person she knew the layout.
Some people may think there is not enough advantage to the technology to offset the cost of the technology. But it did make me think about how telecommuting has advance and also made me think about the issues that the Human Resources department might have with advancing telecommuting. It is no secret that working out of the office, either on the road or working out of a home office (or the couch as it may be), has changed significantly. Initially it was keeping in touch via the telephone, then connecting through a modem to an office main frame, then through an Internet connection. Today with smart phones funtioning as computers and wi-fi being ubiquitous (connect while you are at McDonalds, Starbucks or even Waffle House) it is not hard to be continually connected.
There are many studies that show that telecommuting can be very advantageous to both the company and the employee. These advantages include:
- For the Employer:
- Higher productivity due to fewer interruptions
- Happier employees
- Reduced need for actual square footage
- Increased applicant pool since you don’t need to be in the same city
- Greater capability to get the needed talent
- Reduced relocation costs
- For the Employee:
- Ability to concentrate
- No, or reduced time, in traffic
- Less wear and tear on a car, saving money
- Less money spent on gas
- Less money spent on lunches
- More time to spend with family, or exercising or whatever.
There are however disadvantages. Here is what I see some of those being.
- For the employer:
- Need to have the appropriate technology in place to handle telecommuters
- Need to change methods of management. Productivity no longer equals physical presence
- Managers have to have ways of actively connecting with employees
- Potential liability for Workers Comp issues due to egronomically improper work postures
- Necessity of evaluating employees for ability to work at home (not everyone is well suited)
- Tracking time worked, which is important if the telecommuter is non-exempt
- Deciding which jobs are telecommuting appropriate
- Dealing with morale issues of those employees who are not telecommuting eligible
- For the employee:
- Lack of connectivity or social interaction with fellow workers
- Lack of connectivity (loyalty or identification) to the company
- Potential lack of direction
- Feeling of “out of sight, out of mind” may lead to being let go in down times
- Potentially being overworked, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Because you can always connect you find yourself working more.
I am sure there are more issues that I have missed. Please let me know. The HR department gets thrown into the mix by having its own set of problems associated with telecommuting. These include:
- Staying connected to employees. We often hear of issues by being out of our offices and walking around. So how do you “walk around” with telecommuters?
- Staying connected with managers and supervisors.
- Dealing with differing capabilities of employees to deal with technology
- Being aware of “plaintiff” issues that may arise with improper pay, harassment by computer or email, claims of workers comp injuries, or unionization attempts.
- Balancing what kind of presence and how much presence is important in a workplace that is split between telecommuters and non-telecommuters.
I know that there are many of you out there that have already successfully dealt with some of these issues. Please share with us by leaving a comment so that others may learn. Telecommuting is here to stay. Technology advances is going to make it easier to do. But that does not mean it is going to make the “people” issues of management, social interaction and abuse go away.