Telecommuting is the way to go

Written by Kala Seetharam Sridhar | V Sridhar | Updated: Nov 27 2013, 08:29am hrs
It is that time when we recall and summarise the many events and occurrences of the year that is to end. Looking at the accelerated pace with which the world is going digital, the recently released Ericsson Mobility Report found that during 2013, the total data traffic generated by mobile phones exceeded the amount of traffic generated by mobile PCs, tablets and routers.

According to the Ericsson Report, the number of mobile broadband subscriptions is expected to increase from about 2 billion today to 7 billion by 2019. About 10% of the 850 million mobile subscribers in India are mobile internet users and this number is expected to reach 165 million by 2015, This is augmented by an exponential growth in smartphones and tablets, across both developed and emerging countries. In India, quarterly sale of smartphones is more than 10 million, almost 3 times that of last year.

These market developments coupled with technology advances have increased mobility of individuals and the ability to work from remote locations, and consequently, the freedom to locate further away from the Central Business District (CBD) and other city centres where their offices are.

By definition, telecommuting is the process of commuting to work through communication links rather than through one's physical presence. Telecommuting refers to working from home, and in non-traditional satellite offices, in tele-cottages, or in neighbourhood offices. Teleworking refers to the partial or complete substitution of the trip to and from the work place by telecommunications technology usage. Ubiquitous broadband connectivity, powerful computers, smartphones and tablets with productivity and communication enhancing applications, sophisticated remote access and monitoring tools, and enterprise-enabled cloud computing have reduced the physical barriers that formerly required employees to be always in their offices.

Telecommuting has the potential to benefit urban areas, employers, employees and society. The benefits of telecommuting for urban areas can be substantial if they reduce long rush-hour commutes and congestion. In Bangalore, for instance, during 1991-2001, the average one-way commute increased from 25 minutes to 41 minutes. In the UK, some estimates are that 2.5 hours are added to work-related journeys each week because of congestion.

Telecommuting increases employee productivity by reducing the need to travel, and by allowing them to work at times they are likely to be at their best, and by reducing office distractions. National Panasonic found through its research that 50% of employee-time in branch offices was spent on administrative work that was non-productive. So, it is looking at the 'small-office home-office' (SOHO) concept as one of the measures to increase productivity in the times to come. Recently, British Telecom (BT) increased the use of phone conferencing among its staff in the UK by 30%. At BT, now 75% of all phone conferences are replacements for face-to-face meetings. A study that looked at the impact of this decision found that BT reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 54,000 tonnes, besides a saving of 12 million litres of car fuel, costing an estimated 9.7 million pounds, due to reduction of a staggering 220 million miles of travel and 1,800 years of staff-time over one year. In a recent global report, it was observed that telework saved 15.1 million miles of commuting and collectively saved $12.3 million during a week, in commuting costs.

Telecommuting not only benefits employees but also organisations that can cut costs related to office space. IBM recently reported savings of $75 million in real estate expenses related to office space because of telecommuting. Also, companies choice of talent gets widened to even mobility-impaired talent. Contrary to perception, telecommuting could also increase employee participation in organisational activity. The Ericsson forecast incidentally predicts that video will be the largest and fastest growing mobile data traffic segment and will account for greater than 50% of mobile data traffic by 2019. BT found that the average conference call involved 8 participants, whereas if face-to-face meetings were held, only 5 travelled on an average.

According to the Gartner Group, as early as 2002, more than 108 million users worldwide were working outside the boundaries of their enterprise. Evidence of such teleworking has been found in India and Malaysia. Estimates for European countries vary for teleworkers of all types at 4% of the workforce. Estimates of the number of telecommuters in the US vary and range between 3 and 9 million people, roughly 3-8% of the workforce. Other studies for the US predict that the penetration rate of telecommuting may vary between 5.2% and 10.4% of the workforce compared to the very low levels of about 1.6% projected. A Forrester Research study points out that about 10% of US households maintain a second office at home, bringing about 9 hours of work per week.

In the closing keynote at the Great Place to Work conference in April 2013 in Los Angeles, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer defended her decision to end the company's popular work-from-home policy. The reason cited was that working from home cannot substitute face-to-face meeting of colleagues and customers. In our research, we have found, using US data, that telecommuting had a positive and significant impact on suburbanisation, which implies that telecommuting might actually persuade population/households to locate closer to the CBD and increase centralisation of cities. This means that holding everything else constant, higher proportions of telecommuters cause population density to be higher near the CBD, and vice-versa. This suggests that telecommunications and technology are not a substitute to face-to-face interaction and cities, as we may conjecture, but rather a complement, consistent with the findings of other studies. Employee telecommuting also implies remote supervision that presents monitoring challenges for the employer, while physical isolation may impede the employees involvement in determining valued organisational outcomes. It might also make it difficult for the company to ensure the quality of its services and their delivery time.

It should be noted that telecommuting entails a significant change in management culture, trust on the part of employers, motivation on the part of employees, teamwork and networking. However, technologies such as tele-presence, remote project management tools such as Central Desk, ActiveCollab help alleviate some of these challenges. Enabling teleworking also needs a change on organisational culture and mindset, especially building trust between employees and managers regarding work habits and productivity. Telecommuting can also be a productive way of engaging women and other minorities in the labour force since they may not be able to participate in the labour market otherwise.

The other important opportunities made possible by telecommuting, include cutting on real estate costs, increasing employee productivity, reducing carbon emissions and making our environment cleaner.

Finally, one need not kill oneself by commuting in a rush-hour traffic in roads of cities such as Bangalore with more than 75,000-odd potholes. Technology can be a saviour as an enabling tool to telecommute.

KS Sridhar is the head, Public Policy Research, Public Affairs Centre and V Sridhar is with Sasken Communication Technologies.

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