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August - September
2001  

Telecommuting Pros and Cons  From the Trenches

by Joseph V. Lillie

I have worked for BellSouth for 28 years. For the past two and a half of those years, I have worked from my home. I am a telecommuter.

Discipline is a key requirement of a successful telecommuting experience. Establishing a daily routine early on will go a long way toward having an overall positive work-from-home experience.

The BellSouth policy calls telecommuting "the partial or total substitution of telecommunications technology for the trip to and from work. BellSouth will utilize telecommuting as a means to provide cost savings to the company; promote cultural change; increase employee satisfaction and efficiency; demonstrate our role as a telecommunications leader; and confirm our commitment to the environment."

During my time as a full-time telecommuter, I have identified both advantages and disadvantages of this work arrangement, which is gaining ground in companies across the nation.

Distance May Not Be An Issue, But Your Set Up Is

A successful telecommuting experience requires an appropriate at-home work environment. This environment must not only be adequately equipped, it must match the needs of your work assignment as well. I support the Outside Plant Engineering and Construction work groups for Bell South in Louisiana. I work out of my home in Lafayette, while my immediate supervisor is in New Orleans, some 130 miles away. Because I do not have employees reporting directly to me, colleagues don't rely on my physical presence in the office.

I communicate with the groups I support primarily by telephone and e-mail, although I do visit their offices regularly. In fact, I spend almost equal amounts of time at home and on the road. Many telecommuters work at far greater distances from their employers and clients. But because we have access to so much technology, distance has become less and less of an issue; in fact, in most successful telecommuting arrangements, the notion of distance ceases to exist altogether.

In order for me to stay informed and feel "connected" to the BellSouth office environment and culture, I have found access to the corporate network is a must for me. I have equipped my home office with an ISDN line. In this way, I have the same corporate network access that I had when I worked in the office. Most telecommuters find that a separate business phone line, fax line, and laptop computer with a docking station are absolute necessities as well.

The Advantages of Telecommuting Are Many

Telecommuting arrangements are only successful when they offer advantages to both the employer and the employee. From my perspective, these are some of the advantages telecommuters enjoy:

  • Reduced travel time and costs  Since we do not have to drive to an office location, we save both personal time and costs associated with making this trip.
  • Productive work environment  The telecommuting environment is free of disturbance from coworkers and visitors. There's no "break room," no water fountain and no peer discussions about issues of national importance to keep us away from our work.
  • Flexible work schedule  While telecommuters must be disciplined to start and end work on time, we enjoy some flexibility in our working hours. Completing tasks on time is the priority, not the time of day the work gets done.
  • Privacy  As telecommuters, we do not have to be concerned with discussions about sensitive issues landing on the wrong ears.
  • Reassignments do not always mean relocation  Engineers used to relocate relatively frequently, moving where the jobs or project assignments took them. Telecommuting has reduced  in some instances eliminated  the need for engineers to pack up and move, especially when they only have to meet with other staff or clients infrequently.

From the employer's perspective, the company saves on office space, custodial services, parking facilities, and other support required for on-premises workers. These savings offset the costs of providing telecommunications and computer resources at home, if companies offer such resources.

The Flip Side to Telecommuting

While telecommuters enjoy many benefits, we must endure several disadvantages as well. These include:

  • Lack of social contact with co-workers  The lack of daily contact with coworkers could take us "out of the loop" relative to what is going on within the company. This lack of "inside knowledge" could affect our advancement with the company.
  • Working alone  Telecommuting is a one-person show. We generally have no support staff, and we can't easily call on coworkers to help us with short-term tasks or to provide guidance and consultation on the spur of the moment.
  • Fewer in-person meetings  For many telecommuters, most face-to-face meetings are handled by conference call instead.
  • Longer work hours  Telecommuters are often tempted to work longer hours, generally because the work is always present. We must discipline ourselves to start and end the workday appropriately and to separate work time from personal home time as much as possible.
  • Office visitors  Some telecommuters avoid meeting with vendors or clients at home. Instead, many of these kinds of meetings have to be set up at other local offices, libraries, hotel meeting rooms, or even coffee shops.
  • Office mail delivery  Interoffice mail systems do not deliver to telecommuters' offices. We must make arrangements to ensure that our mail gets delivered to us regularly and reliably.

Employers who offer telecommuting options face disadvantages as well. A lack of clear understanding about what the off-site employee is or should be doing sometimes exists. Employers also sometimes find they have to deal with the potential for inadequate task management on the part of telecommuters, which could affect project deadlines and outcomes. Some are also concerned that their "remote" employees are not disciplined enough to devote adequate time to the job.

Is Telecommuting For You?

I have found telecommuting to be a rewarding experience and ideal work arrangement, and I'd recommend anyone with the opportunity to consider it to do so. If telecommuting is an available option for you, first consider the environment you could create in your home. Then weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the arrangement carefully. Telecommuting is not for everyone, but it may be for you.

Editor's Note: A related article on telecommuting appears in this month's edition of IEEE-USA Policy Perspectives. Click Here to read that article. And for additional resources on telecommuting, visit IEEE-USA's Self-help on Telecommuting web page. 

 


Joseph V. Lillie is an area manager for BellSouth and is IEEE Region 5 Director.

 

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