Telecommuting is back in vogue.
Out of favor for a while after U.S. bigwigs Yahoo! and HP backed away from the practice last year, companies are doing an about-face on flexible work arrangements. This has the potential for big changes in the IT department, first to support the new army of telecommuters and also because many IT workers say they would like to telecommute themselves.
In fact, last week the U.K. potentially unleashed 20 million new telecommuters after the government ruled that all employees working at a company for longer than six months have the right to ask for flexible work arrangements. Previously, that right was limited to parents or other caregivers. According to the ruling, employers have to deal with the request in a reasonable manner, which entails actually considering it, talking to the employee about it, and offering an appeals process. Otherwise, the employee can take the company to a tribunal to settle the issue.
In the U.S, telecommuting is already on the rise: As many as 20 million employees telecommute at least once a month, according to Global Workplace Analytics, which researches flexible work arrangements. And 3 million do so at least once a week, according to estimates from CMSWire. Plus, more companies were planning to offer telecommuting in 2014 than any other new benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual study.
That makes sense given that research shows the ability to work from home trumps most other benefits. In the U.K., a survey by Jobsite, a job-search service, found that 35 percent of respondents cited flexible working as the most important employer attribute, while 66 percent would request flexible working hours if given the opportunity.
Telecommuting is particularly popular with the IT set, according to Talentpuzzle, a high-tech recruiter, noting that 82 of the 2011 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For already offer it—making it tough to compete for talent if a company doesn’t. Flexible working arrangements were also one of the three job perks that could keep a discontented IT professional from jumping ship, Talentpuzzle’s research showed. In fact, 33 percent of IT workers said they would be willing to take a 10 percent pay cut if they could work remotely. Another intriguing finding: Job listings offering telecommuting as an option attract three to six times more applicants.
Ironically, one of the biggest barriers to implementing telecommuting is . . . the IT department, according to Staples’ most recent annual telecommuting survey. Issues include poor VPN connections, connectivity problems, and a lack of training on backup and security best practices.
IT problems aside, telecommuting proponents say this flexibility boosts productivity and efficiency. In the Jobsite survey, 56 percent of employers said they believed the new policy would improve their business by making their employees happier. Similarly, 32 percent of employees said they felt they would be more productive when choosing the hours they worked. “What I seek on a daily basis are things like: peace, focus, hyper-efficiency, and long stretches of uninterrupted time where I can achieve massive gains that simply aren’t possible in 15 to 20 minute windows of time,” blogs high-tech writer Darren Murph, after railing about Bay Area commutes that typically take an hour each way, or ten hours a week. “Offices disrupt, or outright demolish, all of those things.”
A number of high-tech companies agree. At Xerox, 10 percent of the company’s business services workforce is remote and the company has plans to increase that number, while Dell is aiming to have 50 percent of its workers work remotely by 2020, calling it the best way for the company to attract top talent, according to the Xerox blog Real Business. Some companies, such as WordPress and Lullabot, are entirely distributed, with all of their employees telecommuting.
In the U.K., the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that the first 10 years of the new telecommuting policy will bring overall economic benefits of about £475m, citing increased productivity, lower labor turnover, and reduced absenteeism. The government expects about 60,000 new flexible working arrangements out of the policy, according to the BBC.
Content producer Scott Raynovitch goes one step further, encouraging people who are sick of the traffic and expense of high-tech cities such as New York and San Francisco to move to less expensive rural areas and telecommute, as he’s doing from Montana after moving there from New York. “The truth is that some of us just want to get more work done in a shorter amount of time, without being inconvenienced by a long commute, bureaucratic meetings or small talk by the water cooler,” he writes. “The proliferation of high-powered broadband and online communications tools make it that much easier.”
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