Skip to main content

How to tell when telecommuting won't work for you

Teleworking seems like a no-brainer. It can save businesses billions of dollars in travel costs and office expenses while significantly cutting environmental emissions and paper consumption.

Yet even though the ranks of pajama-wearing keyboard jockeys are growing, the share of the U.S. workforce that telecommutes is still less than 3 percent. What will it take to get more businesses to embrace remote working? One key is to acknowledge that while telecommuting is great for the planet, it's not for everyone -- and knowing how to evaluate who's a good candidate for working remotely and who's not can be crucial to the success of a business's telecommuting strategy.

The green benefits of teleworking are undisputed: cleaner air, lower operating costs, and increased efficiency, for starters. Assuming a 40-mile roundtrip commute, each employee allowed to work from home saves the company -- and the planet -- 40,000 pounds of CO2 emissions annually. And that's just for one day telecommuting per week.

Plus, businesses save an average of $20,000 annually for each full-time remote employee, data from The Telework Coalition shows. And many states offer incentive programs, like the Georgia Clean Air Campaign, that provide resources and funding to help develop a telecommuting policy. Employees who work at home don’t require duplicate office equipment, such as landline phones (though a smartphone is a “must have” as a telecommuter), fax machines, chairs and other office equipment that would likely wind up in landfills. Telecommuters also tend to use less paper by saving files digitally and in the cloud, thus reducing storage space, the need for larger office or storage buildings and, of course, trees.

And yet, only 2.9 million employees work from home more than half the time (not including the self-employed). Meanwhile, 40 percent of U.S. employees (approximately 50 million) hold jobs that that could be done while teleworking.

Many businesses remain skeptical about allowing their employees to telecommute. Some employers -- adhering to old-school office models -- expect employees to punch in at 9, do their work under watchful supervision, and punch out at 5, just as they themselves did back in the day. Some believe unless an employee is closely monitored, he or she will goof off.  Such thinking is not only outdated but refuted by current statistics on telecommuter productivity. Others cite fears about security breaches, although the most common concerns are easily resolvable.

Nevertheless, not all employee positions are suitable for teleworking; even those employees who can do their work from home are sometimes better off not doing so. Employers and employees must negotiate to determine when telecommuting is mutually beneficial. Here are a few considerations that should be taken into account:

When to say no

The employee’s job simply can’t be done from home: When the equipment necessary to an employee’s job duties can’t easily be relocated off-site, teleworking is not an option. The same holds true for those who work with specialized machinery or highly sensitive data. Until technology provides concrete solutions to restrictions such as these, some employees must do their work on-site.

The employee needs a structured environment: Working from home requires an innate ability to focus, remain on track, and be productive in isolation. Research has shown that not everyone is suited for telecommuting due to individual personality types and motivators. Some employees perform best within the structure and familiarity of the office milieu. Others thrive on physical interaction with and feedback from supervisors and team members. When deciding who should and shouldn’t telecommute, managers must assess their employees’ strengths and weaknesses and be familiar with their work habits and motivations.

The employee lacks suitable teleworking tools: Accessibility is a must for a teleworker. Unless an employee is equipped with a reliable computer, up-to-date software, and suitable communication technology—such as a smartphone, laptop, email, IM, and conferencing tools like iMeet and GlobalMeet—productivity as well as fluid and timely interactions with office colleagues will be compromised. Management must decide if the budget will allow upgrading an employee’s home office so that it complies with company standards. If the employee lacks the tools—and the company is unable or unwilling to provide them—teleworking should not be considered because the success of the employee will be undoubtedly compromised.

When to say yes

The employee’s performance is not location-dependent: While some professional positions are not well-suited for teleworking, others are. Armed with the right technology, an employee whose job duties can be performed on- or off-site equally can become an effective teleworker. In fact, management might find it advantageous to let him or her work remotely. Not only does the company and the environment benefit by supporting telework, employees who work off-site are typically more productive and professionally satisfied when freed from the incessant distractions, interruptions, and politics of the office.

The employee is self-motivated and productive: Some of the qualities that mark a successful in-office employee (punctuality, dependability, productivity, attention to detail—to name a few) often suggest that he or she will also do well working from home. Employees who are self-starters, who manage their time well and meet deadlines consistently, who require minimal supervision to complete their tasks, and who are capable of effectively communicating with coworkers electronically are well-suited to working remotely. Factor in the benefits commonly associated with teleworking, and both employer and employee might find that teleworking is the best all-around choice.

The employee has compatible tools: Technology has provided us with devices that are simple, personal, and mobile. The right hardware, software, and communication tools enable telecommuters to do their work fluidly and maintain team relationships from anywhere, at any time. Feelings of isolation or marginalization can be mitigated by keeping in touch with colleagues via phone or email and by attending meetings with videoconferencing tools such as iMeet. While it isn’t necessary or practical for a home office to be equipped with state-of-the-art printers, scanners, and fax machines, it is crucial that the employee have tools that are right for the job and compatible with current office equipment.

Should your company consider telework? Maybe, maybe not. It makes good business sense to allow select employees to telecommute, however. Managers who are uncertain of the risks and benefits might try letting employees work from home one day a week; in time—once a successful routine has bolstered trust—employer and employee can discuss a regular practice. The fact is that telecommuting is here to stay. The advantages are many, and the practitioners are growing in number every day. My advice? Give telework a try. You’ll find that the benefits to your company, your employees, and the planet merit a leap of faith.

More on this topic

More by This Author