Giving the Gift of Flexibility

Telecommuting offers employers, employees benefits

Sure there are plenty of whip-cracking bosses, but most would probably rather be loved than feared. And during the holiday season, many employers dance a rather delicate dance: They want to be more Santa than Scrooge, but they can’t help but be unnerved by all the holiday happenings – from shopping to parties to family visits – all of which distract employees from their jobs. But bosses can balance both Santa and Scrooge by giving the gift of flexibility – that is, letting their employees telecommute.

Telecommuting is good for business, but bosses are often wary of the practice. Many still see telecommuters as low-grade scammers. They assume workers aren’t really working unless they’re at work.

Managers like the buzz of a busy office – the ringing of phones, the typing of memos, and so on. But it’s easy to get seduced by the rituals of work. Employees who hustle through the day may indeed be very productive. Then again, they might just be good at kicking up dust. Recently an AOL/ survey found that the average American spends over two hours per day slacking off. They’re gossiping with coworkers, emailing Paris Hilton jokes to their friends, or just meandering around the Web. In other words, just because you’re at work doesn—t mean you’re working.

Managers are quick to point out all the distractions that can preoccupy the telecommuter, but many productivity-sapping distractions lurk in the office, too. Think of all the times a chipper colleague has ducked into your office. Yes, his intentions were good. He just wanted to say hello or sell you some of his daughter’s Girl Scout cookies – but he probably also threw you off your game. Maybe you were on the verge of some breakthrough that would have landed you a promotion and a cover story on the company newsletter. Instead, your nascent idea vanished and now you’re writing a check for two boxes of Thin Mints. Even the less dramatic distractions chip away at our productivity. A recent British study found that office distractions, from chatty coworkers to email, can affect workers as much as going a night without sleep.

When it comes to getting work done, the office environment might not be as good as we thought. On the other hand, the home office might not be as bad.

Telecommuting saves companies money. For example, home-based call centers are 32 percent cheaper than those located in offices. Companies like AT&T and American Express have found that telecommuters are actually more productive than their office-bound counterparts.

Telecommuting gives employees freedom to rearrange their work life to fit better with other aspects of their lives. Want to pick up your child from school or to exercise during the middle of the day? No problem. In fact, someone who finds it more pleasant to work out when the gym is less crowded might be more likely to stick to an exercise program. Of course, exercise helps people clear their heads.

And then there are the time savings. When daylight savings ends it feels so good to turn back the clock and gain an hour. Since avoiding the daily commute can easily save an hour per day, telecommuters gain extra time every day. They can use that time however they like – slurping coffee, walking the dog, or catching up on sleep. Some may want to get a jump on the workday so they can stop working earlier. Some may even use the extra time to do more work.

Bosses who embrace telecommuting recognize that we were not born as clock-punching nine-to-fivers. Different people are happier and more productive with different schedules and environments. And today we’re better able to find the work environment that suits us best. Telecommuting-friendly jobs are becoming more common and new technology, such as better and cheaper laptops and cell phones, makes work increasingly portable. So what’ll it be? Do you prefer working at the office or from home? Perhaps some combination of the two works best.

But while the process of work is up to the employee, the results are non-negotiable. Any good company is deeply interested in results, but many fail to monitor results as well as they could. Telecommuting forces an organization to go through the bottom-line boosting exercise of finding the best way to measure results.

Indeed telecommuting won’t be a good fit for all companies, but more should give it an honest look. Employees would certainly like to receive this gift at the company Christmas party and bosses can focus on playing Santa. No need to tell anyone that the Scrooge inside of them is grinning, too.

Ted Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation and author of a new study, The Quiet Success: Telecommuting’s Impact on Transportation and Beyond.