No more telecommuting? Not a problem for most American workers.
First Yahoo!, then Best Buy revoked their employee policies allowing telecommuting, stirring a furor in the blogosphere. The reality is that, for better or worse, few US workers enjoy that kind of flexibility, data show.
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Telecommuters – originally dubbed "lone eagles" by the media – began to increase in numbers in the early 1990s in then-remote areas of the Southwest such as Sedona, Ariz.; Santa Fe and Taos, N.M.; and Park City, Utah. The practice became attractive to professionals who wanted to escape big-city traffic, density, and crime.Skip to next paragraph
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But the numbers have not matched some early predictions because not every company implements telework well and not every employee is a good teleworker. As with many things, “the devil is in the details," says Ms. Hyland at Adelphi University. "The type of work, the amount of telework, the company culture, and the work style of the employee all can affect the success of a telecommuting arrangement."
Not every kind of company can benefit from telecommuting. Construction firms, companies in service industries such as restaurants and hotels, and assemblyline manufacturers are some obvious examples. Those that can benefit often have large sales forces who work remotely to be closer to their customers.
“It’s not really the industry so much as the type of work within the industry that can be done through telecommuting,” says Hyland. In recent weeks, she says, Jet Blue has expanded its use of reservation agents who telecommute, and a Washington law firm has expanded its use of part-time, at-home lawyers.
Industries that best accommodate telecommuters are those with a higher proportion of knowledge work jobs, such as information technology, finance, media, and public relations, says Gajendran. “Even in manufacturing and medical companies, the midlevel and higher administrative jobs can work well,” he says.
The federal government has also been trying to expand telecommuting among its workers, in part for an unusual reason – emergency planning, Gajendran says. “The federal government has been supporting legislation for this because an administrative agency could [withstand] a terrorist attack to any one location this way,” he says, noting the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. In December 2010, the director of the US Office of Personnel Management cited this rationale in a memo about the new law:
“The Act provides a framework for agencies to better leverage technology and to maximize the use of flexible work arrangements, which will aid in recruiting new Federal workers, retain valuable talent and allow the Federal government to maintain productivity in various situations – including those involving national security and other emergency situations.”
The high-tech industry at large is not likely to follow the lead of Yahoo!'s Ms. Mayer, says Charley Polachi, a partner at Polachi Access Executive Search based in Framingham, Mass. Mayer “has her hands full trying to turn around a mature work force with a lot of entitlement issues. This argument [over telecommuting] can go both ways depending upon the maturity – not age – of the workforce and the tasks they handle," Mr. Polachi says.
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