BY Antoinette Blunt, MPA, CHRP, SHRP



Between fears around pandemics and continually evolving communications technology, the arguments for telecommuting are becoming more persuasive.

There is no doubt telecommuting is convenient for employees, who avoid rush-hour traffic and long commutes. Meanwhile, on the corporate side, having employees work from home can mean considerable cost savings. Teleconferencing and webcasting technology are readily available to support the concept. Systems such as Skype and SightSpeed allow workers to virtually connect face-to-face, albeit through a screen.

Another compelling reason for employees to work from home arose last fall when the threat of H1N1 flu became reality. With fewer opportunities for large numbers of people to congregate and fewer opportunities to transmit infections, the healthier the workforce will be—and that translates into efficiencies and effectiveness for employers.

Of course, telecommuting is not an option for all companies. Factories and service-based organizations that produce goods or serve customers in person cannot offer this option to employees, but, while clearly limited to certain fields, the idea does work well for many businesses.

Telecommuting challenges

Telecommuting does come with drawbacks, particularly for HR. First, because employees are working from home with limited to no supervision, managers must hone their supervisory skills to find ways to measure the quality and effectiveness of work and work processes, and to evaluate an individual’s performance. But HR can manage this through indirect means—reports, customer satisfaction and gathering feedback by contacting customers directly.

The second challenge—of maintaining effective dialogue—is a little trickier. Telecommuting is wonderfully efficient in many ways, but nothing beats getting together in person. Maintaining a relationship with employees without face-to-face contact is challenging.

To that end, it is important for HR to find a way to stay connected to employees and keep employees connected to each other. That does not necessarily mean monthly staff meetings, but rather something less frequent and more value-added. It might, for example, be an annual general meeting that also includes a staff meeting, socializing, as well as a conference and a learning opportunity. Such an idea has the dual purpose of being cost-effective while building team relationships. Like weekend baseball tournaments, road races and golf games that bring the team together, this could have the same effect. What we do not want is to end up losing the human element. We need the sense of connectivity where employees feel valued by the company.

Even without the pitfalls of telecommunication, we already have a problem with the new generation of workers not being as connected to the workplace and each other as baby boomers— many of whom worked for the same company their entire career. With telecommuting, if employees have minimal to no contact with an employer, it could exacerbate retention problems.

It is clear we are on the verge of a new horizon. There are some significant advantages based on the economy, the global downturn and the ever-increasing realization of pandemics. But if we go too far, if we do not have opportunities for people to get together, we run the risk of having employees who are not 100 per cent engaged. At the end of the day, human relationships are what keep people connected, productive, innovative and creative. In short, it is easy to see there are some important workplace gains from technology, but we cannot let it go too far.

This article first appeared in the February 2010 issue of HR Professional magazine.

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