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
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