The history of teleworking has taken a turn for good. Since Jack Niles, an engineer of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), coined the term telecommuting[1] much has been discussed about this new way of managing work duties. Niles’ notion, brought to light during the oil crisis in 1973, was simple: if employees will not come to the workplace, then the workplace must go to employees, thus reducing energy costs and mobility issues back in the day.

Telecommuting: from suspicion to necessity during the COVID-19 crisis

From that moment, the implementation of telecommuting increased —mainly for the last 20 years—, but always with a certain sense of suspicioncaution and concern that has deterred a widespread use of this flexibility-oriented measure.

With the irruption of COVID-19 and a lockdown, millions of employees all over the world have been compelled to transform their homes into remote work stations. Technology allowed for telecommuting before the pandemic, but only a minority performed their work duties from home.

Said irruption of COVID-19 has forced institutions to carry out plans scheduled ahead that were never really in progress. Just an example: in Barcelona’s City Hall, as explained by its managing director, only 200 of its 14 000 employees had the chance to work remotely before the health crisis. At the moment, in a matter of a few days, 7 000 public servants are working from their homes. It’s one of the hundreds of examples showing that the way we work is going to be forever modified.

The European Framework Agreement on Telework (Brussels, July 16, 2002) says, in essence, that telecommuting is a form of organization —voluntary and reversible— that can be only implemented for certain positions or occupations, allowing employees to work from a place different to the facilities, offices or spaces proper to the organization.

This new system offers a great deal of benefits, as documented by various academic researches, but also some risks and, mainly, multiple potentialities that can be reinvigorated by the COVID-19 crisis. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Source: Statista

Benefits of teleworking at all levels

Let’s start by dividing the benefits of telecommuting into individual, organizational, family and social categories.

– Telecommuting entails multiple individual benefits, like the satisfaction of having more control and autonomy in order to manage work and family responsibilities[2], reducing commuting time and transportation expenses[3], and becoming more productive[4], by being oriented to results and avoiding excessive meeting time.

– But we can also find benefits of telecommuting at corporate level: an increase in general productivity as a result of enhanced individual productivity, unexpected higher level of commitment towards the organization[5], and a potential reduction in infrastructural costs, among many others.

– Benefits are indirect at family level. Better time management entails greater involvement with family members, which leads to improving the quality of relationships —something crucial if speaking about children, since an increase in affection received and self-assurance reinforces their cognitive and social development.

– Finally, telecommuting has a direct positive social impact on, among many other things, emission reduction, and indirectly on the improvement in the quality of relationships.

Telecommuting in times of COVID-19

Challenges of telecommuting still to be addressed

Telecommuting, however, entails a series of risks that have to be assessed. As in the case of the coronavirus crisis that has shaken the foundations of reality as we knew it, organizations must confront several threats in order to increasingly democratize this way of performing duties while making the whole process socially sustainable:

– The first risk is a potential polarization of the workforce between core jobs —full-time, well-paid and offering the possibility to work remotely, among other benefits— and peripherical jobs —part-time, temporary, low-paid and with lack of flexibility [6].

– The second risk is social dumping, or outsourcing jobs that can be done remotely to other countries, where hiring costs are much lower.

– The third risk is that a poor management of telecommuting on the part of the organization and the employee may result in a work-life imbalance, with serious psychological and physical consequences in the form of stress and tension[7], for instance.

The potential of telecommuting

Regardless of its benefits and risks, telecommuting offers diverse potentialities that were unthinkable of until recently. One of them is being able to rely on the knowledge of the most prominent experts, even if they’re physically absent. An example of this would be remote surgical procedures. In a near future, we could be operated by a specialist located in San Antonio, New Delhi or Valencia. Another potentiality is the chance to rethink the way cities are designed, moderate demographic density, and reinforce remote rural or deindustrialized areas, which would allow to tackle the soaring rental prices in large cities.

Keys to implement telecommuting

The search for the keyword “telecommuting” has increased exponentially over the last few weeks. Many organizations have been compelled to implement it. A recent article analyses the massive implementation of telecommuting in 27 Spanish companies from March 1 to 16. Great success (and failure) stories will soon be known, but experts concur in certain strategies for a good implementation of teleworking, summarized below following the recommendations by the ILO:

1) Management support. The main barrier against the implementation of telecommuting until now has been the overall resistance from top executives within many organizations. The new situation forces its application and setting clear operational goals, while bearing in mind the health crisis we’re undergoing currently.

2) Proper tools and training. It’s essential to have proper equipment and applications in order to work remotely, as well as enough technical support, and interaction with supervisors and the rest of colleagues.

3) Clear expectations. It’s necessary to set clear goals and monitor results, as well as following a work schedule. It may help soften the hassle of “coming to” and “going out of“ work.

4) The prevalence of time. It’s essential to be aware that every individual lives a unique personal reality, so an effort must be made in order to facilitate what’s more convenient for each person, provided that they’re at the disposal of the team whenever required and previously set objectives are met.

5) The importance of Boundary Management. In other words, knowing how to arrange work, house chores and other daily routines within a single location. Role transitioning is one of the biggest challenges that’s being discussed in academic literature lately. Improving this skill will become increasingly necessary.

Everybody is aware that telecommuting is different from “under confinement telecommuting”: we’re in the middle of a “forced”, therefore not voluntary, situation; many employees have not optimal conditions to work remotely, since they must take care of children and elders at the same time and space. Nevertheless, we should see the current state of things as a unique invitation to (re) think how we want and must work and provide care in the 21st century.

Sources:

[1] Avery, C., & Zabel, D. (2001). The flexible workplace: A sourcebook of information and research. Greenwood Publishing Group.

[2] Allen, T. D., Golden, T. D., & Shockley, K. M. (2015). How effective is telecommuting? Assessing the status of our scientific findings. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(2), 40-68.

[3] Gutiérrez-Domènech, M. (2008). Time and Money: How Much Does Commuting Cost? (Cuánto cuesta ir al trabajo? El coste en tiempo y en dinero). Documentos de economía” La Caixa, (11).

[4] Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(6), 1524.

[5] Masuda, A. D., Holtschlag, C., & Nicklin, J. M. (2017). Why the availability of telecommuting matters. Career Development International, 22 (2), 200-219.

[6] Huws, K. (1997). Teleworking: Guidelines for Good Practice, Report 329. The Institute for Employment Studies.

[7] Yao, J., Tan, N., & Ilies, R. (2017). Telecommuting and Work-Family Conflict: The Moderating Role of Work-Family Integration. In Academy of Management Proceedings.

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