Telework – the use of computers and telecommunications to allow employees to work at home – is becoming an important tool for more companies.
One application of telework is telecommuting: People on a company payroll working at home at least part of the week instead of coming into the office.
Many of these workers, estimated to exceed 3 million Americans, are connected to their offices by computer modem or fax machine. They receive directions and turn in their work over phone lines.
Used this way, telework can help companies trying to inaugurate the new concept of the flexible workplace – practices such as flex-time, job-sharing and homeworking. GTE in Thousand Oaks, Calif., U S West in Denver and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) in Los Angeles are examples of employers with telecommuting programs.
Telework strategies also can reduce traffic gridlock. Because telecommuting allows more people to work at home, it can help reduce rush-hour congestion.
SCAG’s telecommuters include staff planners, accountants and attorneys who work at home one day a week. SCAG’s Tom Brady believes telecommuting builds morale, increases productivity as well as eliminating time spent commuting, a serious problem in souther California.
In Seattle, telecommuting experiments are under way to try to deal with worsening traffic problems that have made commuting times there too long.
Telework also reduces the need for expensive urban office space, and it allows employers to take advantage of the strong work ethic that exists in many of the nation’s rural areas.
For example, J.C. Penney has 14 telemarketing centers. More than 200 teleworkers are connected to these centers. Incoming calls are simply routed to these order takers who work at home.
Other employers, such as insurance companies and travel agencies, have moved functions such as accounting or data processing to “back offices” in rural areas far from headquarters.
Used this way, telework creates new possibilities for diversifying the economies of rural areas.
Telework also gives companies a way to deal with new demographic realities. U.S. employers are beginning to see the first wave of the “baby bust” generation. In the 1970s there were about 9.9 million Americans in the 16- to 21-year-old group. Now there are only about 7.9 million.
With fewer workers entering the labor force, telework is a way to expand the workforce by including parents of children or senior citizens who are willing to telecommute from home by computer or fax but cannot or will not drive to downtown.
Telecommuting is not for everyone. Some workers need the discipline and motivation of an office environment. Some supervisors won’t accept the idea of employees working at home.
“The technology is there,” says Carol D’Agnostino of Link Resources, a New York research firm. “There’s nothing to stand in the way but corporate culture.”