When travel unravels – telecommuting will be a must

by 16 Sep 2009

When oil prices begin to rise, HR will need to be proactive and revisit the idea of telecommuting, writes David Creelman

According to Jeff Rubin, who was the Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets for almost 20 years, when the economy starts to recover we will see another big surge in oil prices. This will have numerous effects on your business but I’d like to focus on one in particular – high oil prices will contribute to the trend of people working at home. HR has an opportunity to be proactive in helping the organisation take advantage of this trend.

Employee benefit or job requirement?

When employees start complaining about the high cost of commuting, the option to telecommute becomes a great benefit. This is reason enough to revisit how your organisation supports telecommuting, but it is no longer the only reason. Some firms, such as IBM, aren’t just allowing people to telecommute; for some jobs they actively push them to do so.

To understand why companies are encouraging staff to telecommute, take a walk around your office. In many organisations half the cubicles are empty. People are at clients’ premises or travelling or may be working at home that day. It doesn’t take an accountant to wonder “Why are we paying for all this space?”

Patricia Nazemetz, who heads up HR at Xerox, warns that real estate costs should not be the driver for telecommuting – but she says there is no question that organisations could save a lot of money if more employees always worked from home.

Responding to the pressures

HR should be looking ahead and recognising that they can help both the employee and employer by improving their support for telecommuting. For many HR departments, telecommuting is simply a policy that sits in the employee handbook, but that is just the administrative side of HR. The organisation- effectiveness side of HR is concerned with how telecommuting is affecting the business.

Telecommuting can make people more effective but it can also lead to problems:

• Some people don’t work effectively on their own. This may be because they are extroverts who need the energy they get from working with others or because they have low self-discipline and need the structure of the office.

• There is a lot of value in face-to-face interaction. That can be lost if you don’t find some way to compensate for it.

• Sometimes you urgently need someone who is telecommuting, but you can’t reach them because they are not answering the phone or email.

None of these problems means that you shouldn’t pursue telecommuting, but you need to be prepared.

What to do

The first thing you need to do is to sell your idea that the organisation will benefit from encouraging telecommuting. Gather some facts. Find out who is accountable for real estate costs and see what they think about the potential savings. Get a sense of how many employees have a long commute. Find out how many employees are telecommuting now. These days, telecommuting is increasingly becoming accepted by managers, but you still need to have the facts to win over all the stakeholders.

The second thing is to look at what sort of technology enablers are available. It used to be that phone and email were the only tools a telecommuter needed, but now you should consider having instant messaging, applications that share the desktop such as GoToMeeting, video conferencing and easy facilities for setting up conference calls. None of these things are expensive or difficult (your teenage kids are probably set up with all this already) but you need to make sure all telecommuters have these tools.

Third, you need to set up a process whereby when employees express an interest in telecommuting they brainstorm with the boss about what could go wrong. It’s not just enough to say “Let’s try this and hope it works out”; they should discuss what difficulties they could run into and think of ways to resolve them. They won’t think of everything in advance but it gets them in the right mindset to think of problems as something to be solved and not a reason to give up on telecommuting.

The end of the office?

We have not yet reached the era where offices will cease to exist. Even Google has people come into offices. However, the pressure to cut real estate and commuting costs makes telecommuting more attractive all the time. HR should be active in making sure their organisation is taking advantage of the opportunities and avoiding the pitfalls of telecommuting.