With soaring fuel prices adversely affecting consumers and businesses throughout the world, this might be a good time for employers to explore or reexamine the possible benefits of teleworking. Also often referred to as telecommuting, a name which reflects the idea of technological communications replacing the traditional commute to work, telework involves regularly working at home or in another location remote from one’s employer at least some of the time.
The current situation is reminiscent of the oil crises of the 1970s, when the pressures of rising transportation costs and the promises of new technology first sparked off interest in teleworking. Futurist authors such as Alvin Toffler were soon predicting that traditional working patterns would be dramatically changed by telework which would, it was often argued, bring about additional benefits such as improved productivity and reduced costs for employers as well as an improved work-home life balance for their staff.
The pace and nature of technological change since then has far exceeded the expectations of many 1970s futurists, with the Internet and the widespread use of portable computers and handheld devices making it theoretically possible for people to work almost anywhere. Yet on the surface, at least, there is little evidence that these technologies have been used to transform working practices to the extent expected.
From the available data, it appears that teleworking has been taken up at a faster pace and to a greater degree in the U.S. than in other countries. In the U.S., the growth in telework has been boosted by the championing effects of the government’s own telework initiative as well as the perceived wisdom following the September 11 terrorist attacks of having dispersed, less vulnerable workforces. An IDC survey reported that 2.44 million employees were working at home full-time in 2007, a 30% increase since 2005, while a WorldatWork survey estimated that 12.4 million employees were being allowed to work from home at least one day each month in 2006, an increase of 63% since 2004. According to an Office of Personnel Management survey, the number of federal employees who regularly telework increased by 37% between 2003 and 2004, reaching 140,694.
Directly comparable recent data on teleworking among employees in European countries is not readily available, but it was estimated in 2001 that there were a total of 2.2 million teleworkers in the UK, including both employees and the self-employed, an increase of up to 70% since 1997, and with the fastest growth among employees teleworking. The percentage of employees teleworking in the UK at this time was reported to be slightly above average when compared with nine other European countries: Finland had the highest percentage of employees teleworking and Germany and France the lowest.
Recently, there have been reports that some major U.S. employers who have traditionally been heavy users of teleworking, including the federal government, have been bringing teleworkers back into office environments. One of the main reasons for their apparent reversal in policy, despite claims that they still support teleworking, is a reported concern about data security; another is the view that teams work better when co-located. Anecdotally, these decisions are reported to be unpopular with many of the employees affected, some of whom have opted to leave their companies rather than revert to more traditional working arrangements. Decisions to reduce rather than increase opportunities for teleworking may prove to somewhat short-sighted in the face of impending recruitment pressures relating to demographic changes, let alone the rising fuel costs which may lead people to seek jobs closer to home if teleworking is not an option.