Today’s workforce is demanding more flexibility from their workplace and many companies are opening up to telecommuting as an option to employees. Recently, Wired cited Forrester research from last year indicating that 34 million Americans worked in their homes or another location away from their physical offices. The report predicts that more than 40% of the U.S. workforce – or 63 million people – will be telecommuting by 2016.

Telecommuting is one of the most common ways that organizations can offer their employees flexible work schedules. With today’s technology it is much easier for the average employee to set up a virtual office at home, whereby personal or work computers, networks, and other communications technology is utilized to fulfil one’s responsibilities, meet the expected objectives, and complete the necessary activities.

There are a number of advantages associated with telecommuting. Offering this opportunity to employees creates increased flexibility for them. Depending on the role, this can lead to better work-life balance. The textbook stated that telecommuting also results in reduced absenteeism which is certainly a plus for organizations looking to improve productivity. The opportunity to telecommute for employees could lead to higher retention of valued employees who might otherwise have quit if the option to telecommute was not made available. This could particularly apply to mothers or fathers who decide that their commute is too long to accommodate the work-life balance they are looking for. For those who would otherwise be driving to work, telecommuting can reduce an organization and employee’s carbon footprint by minimizing or even eliminating the daily commute.

In Managing Human Resources (Belcourt, M., Bohlander, G., & Snell, S. – 2014) the authors state that telecommuting can lead to increased productivity because the “wasted office time” is reduced. This assumes that your employees are wasting time in the office. The research of Alex Pentland has demonstrated that what management might see as a waste of time (e.g. employees talking at the water cooler) is often far from it and, instead, a great space for employee engagement and problem solving. Often, if employees are wasting time it is due to a lack of engagement in the workplace.

An advantage that many organizations see with telecommuting is lowered overhead costs and reduced office space. This can be a significant advantage to an organization looking to reduce expenses. A number of the big banks and professional services firms in Canada have reduced their office space and, simultaneously, overhead by offering telecommuting options to employees and creating shared workspace for if or when an employee is in the office.

While there are a great number of advantages to creating the opportunity for telecommuting, there are a number of disadvantages if the right structure is not put in place to effectively manage and engage telecommuters. Starting on the employee side, a virtual office can mean that it is harder to disconnect from your work at the end of the day which counters the idea that telecommuting can offer better work-life balance. The most successful people often do not do anything in equal measure so it is hard to say that balance can always exist. Depending on your role, a virtual office in your home can call you away from your family outside of office hours. Physical separation for the day to day of an office place can also make telecommuters feel isolated. Organizations need to establish ways to engage telecommuters to keep them in the loop on a consistent basis.

From a management perspective, with telecommuters not in the office day to day interacting with other employees in person there could be a decrease in the cross pollinating of employee ideas and, as a result, a decrease in the level of creativity coming out of a team or department. It can also be hard for managers on a number of levels to have one or more employees telecommuting. If they are used to managing by observation, supervising distributed employees may be stressful. Training may be required to help both telecommuters and their managers address the technical and relationship factors involved. If the right structure is not in place, it may also be hard to distribute information and knowledge, conduct training and foster a sense of connectedness. It would be very important for managers to establish clear procedures that address hours of availability, office reporting periods, performance expectations, and progress reports or email updates to ensure telecommuters fulfil their responsibilities and meet objectives.

To ensure that telecommuting is successful, having the right structure in place is key. At The Covenant Group, we define structure as the system of roles, role relationships and policies that define accountability and authority. First of all, it needs to be clear which roles inside an organization are best suited to distance work. Secondly, there should be a system in place to decide which employees are eligible to opt in to telecommuting. Telecommuters need to be self-starters, motivated, and trustworthy as well as have a clear understanding of the responsibilities of their role, the objectives, and the activities their manager expects them to be engaged in to meet the objectives. They also need to have a clear understanding of the resources available to them – whether relating to people, capital or technology – to help them in fulfilling the duties of their role.

A formal training program for both telecommuters and managers would help to establish clear policies and procedures so that guidelines are in place for a given role and for the organization. These policies should state the conditions under which a telecommuting arrangement may be terminated to further establish transparency around expectations. Most importantly, an organization needs to establish a system to keep telecommuting employees engaged, by regularly checking in, providing feedback, and including them in meetings and decision making opportunities.