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Employers, workers begin to hang up on telecommuting

Human resource experts predict that telecommuting--touted throughout the 1990s as the hottest office trend since carpooling--will likely become as rare as the 40-hour workweek.

Sick of sitting in traffic and toiling in a nondescript skyscraper while the rest of the world sings the praises of telecommuting?

Sit tight, cubicle dweller: The rest of the world may soon be returning to the office.

Human resource experts predict that telecommuting--touted throughout the 1990s as the hottest office trend since carpooling--will likely become as rare as the 40-hour workweek. They predict corporate America is on the verge of a severe backlash against telework, which if not properly regulated can result in productivity drops and an erosion of team spirit.

"Telecommuting is really a failure, big time," said Larry Prusak, executive director of IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management in Boston. "People know that if they do it often, they never get anywhere because they're out of all the loops. Only people with no ambition in their organization buy into it...The idea that it's going to reshape the working world is a grand myth."

Such skepticism is a stark contrast to the sentiment even six months ago, when few people publicly questioned the benefits of telecommuting. The ranks of telecommuters have grown rapidly throughout the late '90s, as employees have wired homes with high-speed Internet connections and multiple phone and fax lines.

Fueling the trend: An office-space crunch in most major U.S. cities, particularly in Silicon Valley and the Northeast, has forced employers to be creative when it comes to hiring. Instead of leasing new office space or expanding the existing headquarters, it's vastly less expensive to provide workers with laptops and phone lines and tell them to stay home. Northern Telecom estimates it saves $2,000 per person per year when it does not have to provide the typical 64 square feet of space needed for an employee.

According to a recent report from the International Telework Association & Council (ITAC), at least 16.5 million regularly employed workers in the United States over age 18 telecommute at least one day per month. At least 9.3 million U.S. workers telecommute at least one full day per week, ITAC reported. By some estimates, as many as one in four workers will telecommute within five years.

But those statistics typically include occasional teleworkers--people who do it instead of calling in sick or who work at home part of the day to let the plumber into their home.

According to IBM research, fewer than 5 percent of all U.S. workers telecommute on a full-time basis, and the number appears to be shrinking.

In fact, a small but growing legion of workers say they'd rather be in the office than at home--and they'd rather have their managers and co-workers close at hand, as well.

"I know a lot of people would die to telecommute, but I actually prefer working with other people," said Kevin Key, a Webmaster in San Diego, who recently popped into an online chat group about telecommuting. "I like to interact with other people, especially because I work on a computer all day. I wouldn't want to be sitting at home all day."

Mixed feelings
It's difficult to find HR executives who blatantly admit that they're reining in teleworkers. A recent poll by Techies.com shows that telecommuting has become one of the most preferred perks among workers in the technology industry. Few managers want reputations as rigid tyrants who require their minions underfoot during daylight hours.

But privately, HR professionals are beginning to grumble about at-home workers. At the heart of the backlash is a candid acknowledgement among managers: Telecommuting--as progressive and logical as it may be in the Internet Age--has gone too far, too fast.

Most people agree that telecommuting privileges make sense for regional sales managers and others who spend much of their time traveling. It's also popular on an occasional basis for workers who have to finish deadline projects when they're feeling under the weather, when child-care plans fall through, or when a construction project or snowstorm impedes the commute.

But even telecommuting advocates admit it doesn't make sense for reception desk clerks, senior executives, or anyone whose responsibilities include "face time" with other employees or the public.

Given the historically tight job market, the fierce competition for talent, and the record high turnover among workers, many executives see telecommuting as a perk to woo new recruits--no different than offering them company cars, subsidized Internet access or stock options.

"We tell everyone that it's allowed, but in reality we hope that people realize that it's not always practical, and we hope they don't take advantage of it too much," said an HR manager for an e-commerce company based in Sunnyvale, Calif. "If everyone took advantage, the office would be empty and it wouldn't be pretty."

Many experts say the telecommuting trend will die a quick death when the economy begins to cool and the job market loosens. When that happens, employers won't have to fight for employees with such lifestyle perks as telecommuting.

"If there's a downturn, who would be more likely to be let go--a friendly person in the office or someone no one ever saw?" Prusak said. "You can bet that when the economy takes a turn, people won't want to telecommute as much."

OSHA intervenes
Another pail of water on the telecommuting blaze: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a five-page document on telecommuting in 1999 in response to a query sent by a company that was unclear about safety standards of teleworkers. OSHA said that an employer would be responsible for preventing or correcting hazards in a home office, passing an unprecedented burden of liability onto the employer.

"Employers must take steps to reduce or eliminate any work-related safety or health problems they become aware of through on-site visits or other means," OSHA stated.

OSHA did not detail how much responsibility an employer has for a teleworker's home office. It's unclear whether an employer is responsible for making sure a teleworker's office is ergonomically sound or whether the employer should pay for snowplowing services on the porch and driveway of a traveling salesperson's home. But experts said the OSHA recommendation will go down as the first budge of moving the pendulum away from telecommuting.

"People are going way overboard; they're sending people home with computers and cable modems and thinking everything will be fine," said Jessica Lipnack, CEO of Virtualteams.com, an industry portal for employers and employees who participate in networked offices.

"If people never see one another, that's ridiculous," said Lipnack, who advocates bringing together telecommuters numerous times during the course of every work project. "We don't want to do away with the thing that we really love: human contact."

The scholars' take
Also fueling the backlash are academics, who are just starting to study the effect of telecommuting on productivity and corporate identity.

Most reports point to increases in productivity among teleworkers. According to the ITAC study, sponsored by AT&T, the self-reported productivity improvement of home-based teleworkers averages 15 percent. But many studies indicate that teleworkers may unwittingly undermine workplace collaboration and sap productivity in more subtle ways.

According to a report in the S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal in the fall of 1999, ranks of disparate telecommuters may sabotage corporate culture. Telecommuters, the scholarly journal reported, are vastly different than office workers.

"These individuals question how the basic norms, beliefs, and values that composed a particular culture will be reinforced and maintained with 'no water coolers to gather around or lunchrooms to meet in,'" wrote the authors, Thomas W. Gainey of the State University of West Georgia and Donald E. Kelley and Joseph A. Hill of Francis Marion University.

"In other words, this position argues that corporate cultures traditionally strengthened and reinforced through informal discussions of stories, ritual and specialized language can no longer be maintained. Therefore...geographic dispersion is the primary factor contributing to a weakened culture."

Despite the emerging questions about telecommuting, the practice is likely to remain--at least on an occasional basis for a portion of the work force. The emerging generation of workers--also known as Generation Y--shows an unprecedented desire for workplace flexibility, including telecommuting.

Other options?
But instead of expanding telework, many companies are experimenting with alternatives.

Merrill Lynch staffs a corporate hotel in the New York suburbs where certain employees can book a cubicle whenever they don't have to appear in the headquarters. Early research indicates that so-called telework centers may boost productivity, allowing employees to evade the distractions of dirty laundry and the television at home--as well as water-cooler chitchat at the office.

To cope with the high price of commercial real estate and the shortage of information technology workers near its San Francisco headquarters, software company Macromedia is in the process of opening outpost offices in Maryland, Minnesota, San Diego and throughout Europe. Each office will have a conference room equipped with three large video screens so programmers and engineers can collaborate from remote locations.

Macromedia CEO Rob Burgess said the remote offices have become popular with employees, who don't necessarily enjoy punching a keyboard in home isolation all day.

"I don't see a practical limit to that kind of setup," Burgess said. "I like the local community culture."