The Telecommuting Trend

The virtual office looks good to more employees and employers

Go to most any white-collar company, walk down the hall past cubicle land and you’ll find it at the very end. It’s more powerful than any power tie, and more impressive than the gaudiest Rolex or the closest reserved parking spot. It’s the corner office.

In the language of corporate-speak it’s the loudest way to holler, “I’ve made it!” without saying a word. And scarcity makes this prize even more coveted. Whoever nabs the corner office scoots around with an ever-present cocksure grin. Good for that corporate-climber, but what about everyone else? Many employees aren’t necessarily angling for the corner office. Any bit of personal space will do. They’ll take the tiniest, windowless office, so long as it’s theirs. So how about it, boss?

“Don’t like it? Pack up and go.” That’s the response we might expect. Pop culture often shows us bosses who treat their employees with indifference or even contempt. Note that Mr. Burns, The Simpsons skeletal tyrant, has no qualms with poisoning his employee’s donuts and, in some circumstances, it’s company policy to give his “hung-over drones” the plague. Even when they’re not as deliciously twisted as Mr. Burns, we’re used to bosses who treat employees like interchangeable cogs, as replaceable as the copier.

But today there’s more push to please employees. Bosses may still be inclined to tell an unhappy employee to pack up and go, but these days they aren’t necessarily firing workers—they might even be inviting them to work from home. predicts that more businesses will expand their telecommuting programs and telecommuting took the number two slot on its “Top 10 Salary Trends for 2006” list. Employees value the flexibility and freedom telecommuting offers, but suspicious bosses have long resisted the practice. Why might they be changing their minds?

Maybe they’re just decent human beings, then again, maybe they they’re still obsessing about that bottom-line. After all, good employees make companies money and high turnover costs money. If a good worker leaves the company, talent and experience leaves too. Companies must then spend time and money recruiting a replacement and training the newbie. Savvy managers know they’re not just competing with other companies for customers; they’re also competing for employees. The competition for workers intensifies when the economic outlook brightens and is also forecasting a brighter economy. According to the trend-spotters, “The primary employer goal of 2006 will be to bolster employee retention, as a strengthening economy will have more employees looking for new jobs.”

In the days of pricey phone calls and sluggish dial-up connections, telecommuting was often more trouble than it was worth. But now we’re awash with all sorts of new technologies—from Blackberries to broadband—that allow employees to be better connected with colleagues and customers whether they’re at the office or not. No surprise then that technological improvement is another reason why more employers are giving telecommuting a second look. And, if it’s the difference between keeping a good employee or not then that’s all the more reason to embrace at-home work.

In fact, the number one trend on the list, a shift to performance-based pay, also fits nicely with telecommuting. When employees work from home, managers have little choice but to judge them by what they do rather than how they do it. After all, a worker can look busy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s productive. Indeed a survey from last year revealed that the average worker wastes over two hours each workday. That they are judged on performance is a big reason why telecommuters are often more productive than their office-bound colleagues.

Telecommuting allows bosses to please their restless employees – even while they’re becoming more productive. Not a bad exchange. There’s also much less squabbling over precious office space because, with telecommuting, there’s never a shortage of virtual offices.

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