It's been touted as the next big thing for decades, but only now is telecommuting gaining real traction. Businesses are realizing that allowing staff to work off-site lets them expand head counts without moving to larger quarters, accommodate workers' family obligations and keep staff productive when weather and life emergencies keep them home-bound.
Almost a third of Canadian companies already offer telecommuting in some form, according to a recent BMO survey, but that number looks set for a big jump. A global survey of IT executives suggests the share of organizations adopting the practice will rise from about 25% today to 83% by mid-2014.
There are powerful reasons for making the switch: employers can save $10,000 per year on each two-day-a-week telecom- muter through increased productivity and lower absenteeism and turnover, according to Telework Research Network, a Carlsbad, Calif. consultancy. On average, telecommuters are 20% to 40% more productive when working off-site, thanks to fewer interruptions, and often "give back" the majority of their saved commuting time by working longer, says Robyn Bews, program manager at WORKshift Calgary, a government-funded initiative that helps businesses adopt telecommuting.
But convincing managers of these benefits isn't always easy. Laura Hambley, a Calgary organizational psychologist who studies telecommuting, says bosses still cling to outdated ideas, such as the belief that "seeing employees in the office means they're working effectively." Just as many staffers need training to adapt to working remotely, managers need to adapt how they think about and communicate with their teams. Companies making the shift will need to invest in guiding often reluctant managers to focus on results in assessing employees, not time logged at their desk. Outside HR specialists also can help employers craft policies regarding which positions—and which personalities and work styles—suit telecommuting, and set clear expectations for off-site employees.
On the logistical side, organizations will need to set up and maintain remote employees' links with the office. "Security has always been a big concern, but the technological leaps we've experienced is one of the big reasons teleworking is more predominant," says Sunil Mistry, a partner with KPMG Enterprise in Toronto. Employers, especially those without dedicated IT departments, will need partners to assist in setting up virtual private networks and sourcing software that allows staff in any location to use the same applications.