The Incredible Disappearing Office
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Press release from the issuing company
According to a new report from The Conference Board, the proportion of employees who work predominately from home (or another remote location) has, over the last decade, more than tripled in many industries, while nearly doubling nationwide among all full-time (non–self-employed) U.S. workers. Drawn from a number of recent surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau and private sources, The Incredible Disappearing Office : Making Telework Work finds employees taking more frequent advantage of such workplace flexibility across the board, with 84 percent of employees who telework more than once per month now working remotely at least one day per week. In 2008, that number was 72 percent.
Amy Lui Abel, director of human capital research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report, explained: “A confluence of factors, led by the rapid expanse of sophisticated, secure, and relatively inexpensive communication technologies, has sparked a quiet revolution in where and how many Americans do their jobs. To take full advantage of the opportunities teleworking provides—while avoiding the many potential pitfalls—employers and employees must engage in an open dialog that establishes the mutual expectations and responsibilities that come with this new workplace culture. Our report should serve as a catalyst for beginning that conversation.”
Not Just for Writers and Door-to-Door Salesmen Anymore
These trends are fundamentally altering the profile of the average teleworker. Where employees of non-profit organizations were most likely to telework in 2000, by 2010 the for-profit sector had taken the lead. It may be unsurprising that workplace flexibility appeals both to older workers nearing (or delaying) retirement and Gen-Y new hires for whom virtual presence and multichannel communication are second nature. Steady technical refinement, however, has made teleworking an increasingly attractive business proposition as well. As a case study, Making Telework Work cites IBM’s long-term holistic strategy, which grew out of the 1970s and the idea of installing access “terminals” in employees’ homes. By 1995, 10,000 IBM employees were mobile, allowing the company to move from a traditional 1:1 workspace-to-worker ratio to 1:4. In just that first year, a $41.5 million investment in worker training returned $74 million in savings.
With today’s significantly cheaper, lighter-weight technology, organizations without IBM’s expertise can now achieve similar savings. It is little wonder, then, that the federal government is embracing the approach. Signed into law on December 9, 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act (TEA) established a framework of identifying and training eligible employees, backed by appropriate policy and support, effective management oversight, and timely reporting; it offers a model not only for public agencies but also private organizations seeking to implement their own telework programs.
Achieving Work–Life Balance when Home is Where the Job Is
At the same time, this very autonomy can have distinct drawbacks. Teleworkers may feel cut-off from their colleagues and weakened in their ability to influence both day-to-day decisions and larger strategic plans. They often lack sufficient professional and administrative support and fear that being “out of sight, out of mind” keeps them from being properly recognized and rewarded by management. With meetings and group projects more difficult to coordinate, teleworkers also risk resentment from office-based colleagues, who may assume additional responsibilities in their absence. Finally, the same “always on” technology that makes the modern home office possible can mean difficulties setting boundaries between home and work time, setting the stage for potential overwork and burnout.
Nurturing the Telework Ethic
“Research concurs that the dual lynchpins of effective teleworking are strong management and robust IT,” explained co-author Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at The Conference Board. “With support from HR, managers at all levels must make the ‘mental shift’ to trusting that employees are getting the job done without seeing them every day—and to have the strength to act decisively when they’re not. On the technology side, the right hardware and software choices backed up by abundant support staff can make the difference between a seamless transition and hundreds or thousands of man-hours lost to bugs and faulty connections.”
From these prerequisites, The Incredible Disappearing Office: Making Telework Work offers a guideline for “making telework work.” The report details best practices for:
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