Is Telework Dead?
Periodically spates of articles of "the sky is falling"
slant appear in the US national media with respect to telework.
Their message generally is around the theme that interest in telework
is falling because of one or more of the following:
- Equipping and supporting teleworkers is too expensive
- No company can survive unless all of the workers are in the office
all of the time or otherwise are instantly available to management
- It's just too difficult to manage teleworkers
- Security considerations preclude any form of effective remote working
(at least over the Internet)
- Survey X proves that the numbers of teleworkers is
This reminds me of a situation a few years back when I was importuned
by a reporter from a national newspaper to provide the names of some telecommuters
for the reporter to interview. JALA's policy is not to release the names
of any of the participants in telecommuting programs we design unless
we have a prior agreement from the individual in question. To make it
more difficult, this reporter wanted to interview people who had voluntarily
quit telecommuting. I searched our database and found one telecommuter
(out of 500 in this program) who had quit. I secured the necessary OKs
from the client and gave the name to the reporter.
What to my wondering eyes should appear a few weeks later but an article
about the decline of interest in telecommuting, focused on the interview
with this one telecommuter. The main reason for this person's decision
to quit telecommuting was that he was lonely for the activity of the office.
Since we take care to explain some of the adjustment factors, such as
loneliness, to prospective telecommuters before they start telecommuting,
I was curious to see how frequently the subject of the interview telecommuted.
Another look at the database revealed the secret: one day per week!
So a national newspaper was spreading the word about the imminent demise
of telecommuting based on an interview with an individual who was telecommuting
one day weekly and constituted 0.2% of the telecommuters in that organization!
Although slightly less biased, the more recent articles are of the same
nature; some researchers call it the Dixon-Graphite Method (referring
to a lead pencil with a good eraser): given the desired results,
dredge up only the data required to prove them.
So, with that as background, here is my response (again) to these articles:
- The initial
equipment bill for teleworkers can be higher than that for non-teleworkers
who never leave the office. Support costs also can be higher at first
but teleworkers are usually motivated to remember what the help desk
people told them; they don't keep returning to the help desk with
the same problems; long term support costs can be lower for teleworkers
than for non-teleworkers. All of this must be balanced against the
usually much more significant financial benefits
- Please show
me any long-term-successful company that has all of its employees
in the office all of the time. Most companies have up to half or more
of their desks empty at any given time during normal office hours.
If an in-office employee is not immediately available because he/she
is in a meeting, no problem. If it's a teleworker, on the other hand,
suspicions of golf course excursions immediately arise.
management of teleworkers only requires applying traditional management
skills. The hard part is that managers actually have to do it, not
just pay lip service to the management methods. See Managing
Telework for many more details. Most of the recent articles contain
comments from managers who appear to be clueless about good management
can be a concern with teleworkers, as it is with sales people,
clients, and suppliers (the latter two groups, not employees, are
often cited as the most frequent leakers of company secrets). Enormous
efforts are underway to improve the security of Internet transmissions
so that even the costs of telecommunications become negligible for
distant teleworkers. Technological fixes and proper security training,
not to mention quality management, are the keys to secure teleworking.
surveys wonderful? Misquote—or pick—the right ones and you can
anything. We managed the US national telework survey for
Telework America and ITAC in
2000. The figures quoted for that survey are as accurate as we could
get; there are no hidden biases. They show neither stagnation nor a decline
in telework anywhere.
Moral: Read newspaper reports with a properly jaundiced eye.
Jack Nilles, 2 July 2001
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Monday September 26, 2011.