With gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, who wouldn’t want to join the growing number of U.S. employees whose route to work is just a few short strides from the bedroom to a home-based office?
Some 37 percent of respondents would accept a pay cut of up to 10 percent in exchange for the opportunity to telecommute full-time, according to an online poll of more than 1,500 workers in technical fields conducted by Dice.com, a recruiting and development Web site.
Yet in an interesting contradiction, a separate survey found that while a majority of office workers believe it’s beneficial for a company to endorse telecommuting, less than a third take advantage, largely due to perceptions that working away from home hinders their chance at a promotion, according to results released in August by Steelcase, Grand Rapids, Mich., an office furniture manufacturer that commissioned the survey of 700 white-collar employees.
Interest in telecommuting, or using computers and other technology to work from home while still staying connected to the office, is on the rise due to high gas prices and the continued emphasis on work-life balance.
A bill that would require federal agencies to allow workers to workers to telecommute at least one day a week passed in the House of Representatives in June.
Last year, 33 percent of corporations surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management reported that they allow employees to telecommute at least one day a week. Twenty-one percent let workers telecommute full-time, roughly eight times the percentage of employers that permitted it five years ago.
Telecommuting is easier on workers’ wallet than driving to work. They spend less on gas and office-appropriate attire, and lunch is likely to be a lopsided sandwich instead of a pricey restaurant meal.
Aside from freeing up time for family and friends, eliminating the daily commute makes it easier for employees to be at their workstations on time and less stressed than if they’d just endured rush hour traffic, a plus for employers.
Other benefits to employers include savings on office space and equipment, increased worker satisfaction and retention, and – if the right people are allowed to telecommute – an increase in productivity and efficiency.
“If you’re in the office all day long, a lot of time is wasted chit-chatting with colleagues,” says Susan Meredith, who works with organizations to improve efficiency through her consulting firm, HumanExcel, Austin, Texas.
Obviously, if you’re a nurse, a store clerk or a gravedigger, working at home is not an option and neither are certain office jobs that require a lot of teamwork.
“While telecommuting has usually not been tracked by job category, some jobs tend to be linked with telecommuting more than others, such as computer programmers and Web workers in general,” says Susan Ascher, president and CEO, Ascher Group, Roseland, N.J., a human resources contracting firm.
On the whole, employees who work primarily on computers or on the phone are the likeliest candidates for telecommuting.
Managers or aspiring managers might do best to brave the daily commute.
OfficeTeam, a temporary-job placement service in Menlo Park, Calif., commissioned a survey of 150 senior executives to find out which employee level is best suited for telecommuting.
Forty-three percent said staff level positions were most appropriate, compared with 18 percent who felt telecommuting is most beneficial for managers. In addition, more than two-thirds of respondents said senior executives at their firms rarely or never telecommute, perhaps because it’s not seen as conducive to effective management, which requires face time with employees and easy access for workers who have concerns or need guidance.
Even for those whose jobs can be done remotely, telecommuting is not always the best option. Working at home can be isolating and the downfall of folks who find it difficult to stay on track and meet deadlines without supervision.
“Going to the office is not only for work. There is a large social aspect to it. If employees aren’t used to this, they may be shell-shocked by the experience of working alone,” says communication specialist Laurent Duperval of the Canadian firm Duperval Consulting, Montreal, Quebec.
Offered the chance to telecommute, workers should carefully consider whether it’s the best move for their career.
“Telecommuters do risk becoming invisible and being overlooked for promotions, so they need to go the extra mile to remain visible and keep the lines of communication open,” says Dave Willmer, OfficeTeam’s executive director. “Spend some time in the office and avoid being out of sight, out of mind. Employees who work off-site should stay connected to colleagues and managers to ensure they’re top of mind for team projects and desirable assignments. Also, take every opportunity to meet with them face to face.”
Willmer advises telecommuters to submit frequent status reports emphasizing their productivity and highlighting accomplishments to make sure they remain visible and get proper recognition.
From the get-go, it’s important that clear expectations are spelled out, project timetables are established and periodic appraisals take place.
After all, not driving to work shouldn’t result in a career stall-out.