Telecommuting is a flexible work arrangement in which organizational employees work from an alternate location, usually the home. This variant of flexible work has been growing at a tremendous rate, which may be attributed to demands from employees, organizations, and society. First, employee demands for flexible work arrangements have arisen from substantial changes to the family structure. The growth of dual-career and single-parent families and increasing elder care responsibilities have resulted in individuals trying to balance the demands of both work and family. Telecommuting allows employees to eliminate their commute and have more flexibility, allowing them to meet both work and personal demands. Organizations also benefit from flexible work options.
Due to demographic changes, organizations need to make accommodations to attract and retain employees. Providing an option to telecommute, even one day a week, is attractive to many employees. Since employees can continue to work at times when it is not possible for them to be physically located at the traditional work site, telecommuting provides the organization with a means to deal with disasters or to accommodate disabled employees. Finally, telecommuting benefits society by reducing the number of people commuting to work, which contributes to less traffic congestion and pollution.
The growing power, sophistication, and portability of technology have made telecommuting a viable work option. Technological developments, such as portable hardware, high-speed Internet access, and collaborative software have contributed to making work less geographically dependent. Individuals are now able to share software, information, and ideas from remote locations. Yet there is the potential for negative outcomes to telecommuting. Employees who work out of the office may become isolated, which could have an adverse effect on their career advancement prospects. Some employees may find telecommuting to cause additional stress.
The flexibility afforded by telecommuting may allow employees to diminish some aspects of work-family conflict but may increase others. Flexibility allows an employee to deal with time-based work-family conflict. For example, when working from home, a parent could take a break to attend an event at school. There are, however, some aspects of work-family conflict that may actually increase by working within the home. Blurring the boundary between work and home may increase behavioral-based work-family conflict, because an employee is forced to change roles and behaviors quickly. Strain-based work-family conflict, the spillover of strain from one role into another, may also increase, because the employee no longer has the commute to psychologically adjust from home to work and vice versa.
The research that has been done on the work outcomes of telecommuting has many contradictions. A number of books and articles suggest that telecommuting will increase job satisfaction and productivity and reduce employee stress and absenteeism. Conversely, other authors have insinuated that telecommuting has negative outcomes for employees, including loneliness, isolation, exploitation, increased stress, and limited career advancement prospects. It is likely that these contradictions are a result of the various ways telecommuting has been defined and examined. The concept of telecommuting has been explored under a variety of names, including telework, flexi-place, and homework. Despite years of study, there is still no clear, inclusive, accepted definition of this work arrangement. Location, employment relationship, telecommuting structure, and level of participation are suggested as factors to be included in the formulation of a complete definition of telecommuting.
Although most researchers have considered telecommuting to take place only from the home, others have suggested it may occur from a variety of locations, including a satellite work center, customer’s office, hotel, or airport. Location is an important consideration, since the experiences of individuals who work alone at home could be very different from the work experiences of employees working at an alternative work location.
Distinctions between home-based employees and home-based self-employed contractors must be made consistently by state and federal agencies to protect employees from becoming exploited. It is also necessary to consider the employment relationship with the organization in developing a complete definition of telecommuting. Some researchers have included self-employed individuals working from home in their definition and samples. Work experiences that may be impacted by telecommuting, such as career advancement and autonomy, would be expected to differ for self-employed and organizational employees.
Telecommuters may be either substitutors or supplementors. Substitutors are organizational employees who spend part or all of the work week at a nontraditional site in lieu of the traditional workplace. Supplementors work additional “overtime” hours at home, often to be able to concentrate and catch up on extra work. The work experiences and outcomes for substitutors and supplementors may vary substantially. Supplementors have been found to work more hours yet still devote the same amount of time to family responsibilities, suggesting they sacrifice their personal time to do additional work. Not surprisingly, supplementors have been found to experience more role conflict and work-to-family spillover. Substitutors, by not being in the office during traditional hours, may be limiting their visibility. This may result in less positive perceptions from supervisors and a reduction in career advancement opportunities.
Most of the literature suggests there should be a balance between telecommuting and working in the traditional office environment. Productivity studies have shown that working at home three days per week is optimum, with working more or less at home resulting in lower productivity. Other research has found that telecommuting one day per week did not have an adverse impact on career advancement prospects. Higher levels of telecommuting may lead to more isolation and, consequently, less career advancement.
Although varied definitions of telecommuting make it difficult to compare the current literature, numerous pilot studies have proven that when properly structured, there are a number of benefits to this flexible work arrangement. It is imperative that researchers continue to explore the potential effects of this work arrangement on the organization, the individual, and the family. Ultimately, this research should guide organizational policy so that the benefits of telecommuting are maximized and the limitations are minimized.
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