Technology and Telecommuting

March 23, 2017
By David E. Meadows

Yes, but watch out for embarrassing moments in front of the camera.

I was rushing to catch an elevator the other day when I ran into an old friend—or shipmate as we like to say in the Navy. She and I retired about the same time back around 2005, and we went our separate ways working within the civilian community. Along with this career came the enjoyment of commuting and the dynamics of a profit margin life.

She is a telecommuter as am I most days, but even telecommuters sometimes have to come to the office. Yet, telecommuting saves business costs, improves employee retention and reduces environmental impacts to the brick and mortar infrastructure.

Other terms for telecommuting include working from home, telework, remote work and virtual work, but I think the most common one today is some variation of telecommute.

The ever-expanding capability of at-home technology makes telecommuting more and more attractive. This attractiveness not only includes an improved life-to-work balance, but also comes with a reduction in business overhead, which improves profit margin. For the individual with a new car, the 50,000 mile/four-year warranty that usually comes with it should still have some life remaining if you don’t have to commute during those four years.

For large metropolises such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, as well as smaller cities such as Frederick, Maryland, and Newnan, Georgia, an aggressive telecommuting business model would ease traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions and reduce personnel costs through increased retention.

Reduce personnel costs—what the heck?! Global Workplace Analytics’ research on the benefits of telecommuting discovered that 36 percent of employees would choose working from home over a pay raise, while 95 percent of employers say that telecommuting aids retention. After all, retention is a business cost.

Retaining quality, talented personnel reduces replacement costs that come about when an employee jumps ship for another opportunity. When a vacancy becomes a position that must be filled, not only is a cost involved with the search and hiring efforts, but also an intangible cost can be attributed to lost knowledge and a tangible productivity cost.

Not all positions are capable of being allocated to the realm of telecommuting, but a lot of business processes and efforts can become telecommute work. According to Christina Merhar in her well-read human resources blog, the cost for just replacing a $50,000 salaried employee could be as much as nine months of that salary. And don’t forget the intangible cost attributed to lost knowledge or the tangible productivity costs. Many have proved telecommuting to be a great employee retention and morale tool, not to mention a good business model.

Most telecommuting offices can be set up with a laptop, a printer and a space where one can work. Most times an employer will provide the basics for an offsite office, but many who telecommute invest their own funds to improve their own capabilities. To be fully flexible for any telecommuting job, you need a couple of display screens, at least one three-in-one printer, a top-of-the-line laptop and Internet access. I would also recommend having WiFi for the home. The children will love you for it; and if you have adult millennials still at home, just turn off the WiFi for a few days and they’ll find another place to live.

Of course, most laptops come with a camera. You need it to join those meetings where face-to-face conversation is needed. The danger with a camera is what may happen during live streaming from a home. Just think of the recent BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly of Pusan National University when his 4-year-old daughter pranced into the room followed by her 2-year-old brother being chased by his wife trying to pull them out of the home office.

I recommend taking a technology step backward by posting a 5 by 7 card above the camera and out of sight of the others on the teleconference, reminding you that you are streaming live. You can write little reminders such as “Don’t touch my nose,” “Don’t stand up to poke in my shirttail,” or “Don’t put on makeup.”

And, in deference to the Kelly moment mentioned above—whatever you do, let the family know you are going to be on a teleconference. You may even want to lock the door to your office. A lot of family secrets would have remained that way if the 5 by 7 warning card had been in effect. Think of Professor Kelly when you are preparing for a teleconference and how much the world now knows about his family.

My commuting challenge begins every morning around 5:30 with 16 steps between bedroom and office slowed with a quick swing by the coffee pot during this internal commute. The only thing missing is the morning donuts, which probably is a good thing.

More people than we like to think may view telecommuting as being filled with employees who may be shirking their duties. In keeping that in mind, a telecommuter must be able to see, speak, show and discuss documents, statements, presentations and such to her or his boss.

My experience with employees who telecommute has been that you could always reach them—after all, a mobile telephone is another technology needed for telecommuting—when you needed their expertise, advice, insight and/or help with a corporate challenge. The telecommuter has an obligation to let her or his bosses and even their subordinates know their schedule for the day.

Telecommuting brings a higher level of personnel stability to a company in retaining valued expertise and professionals. It also reduces company overhead. Among the pros and cons for telecommuting include the old adage that “being out of sight is being out of mind,” which may affect an employee’s opportunities for promotion and for more challenging positions within his or her company. But, there is always a risk that the next step up may mean less telecommuting.

David E. Meadows is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the author of the Sixth Fleet series, along with Seawolf, Joint Task Force Liberia, Tomcat, Final Run and other action-adventure novels.

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