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Originally published March 30, 2009 at 1:35 PM | Page modified April 9, 2009 at 10:17 AM

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Guest columnist

Telecommuters need more than just broadband access

As the country's second "most wired" city and the nation's ninth-worst for traffic, Seattle is home to a growing number of telecommuters. Guest columnist Paul Lambert discusses how one company's virtual-office approach reaps benefits for the company, employees and environment.

Special to The Times

As the country's second "most wired" city and the nation's ninth-worst for traffic, it will come as no surprise that Seattle is home to a growing number of telecommuters.

Nationwide, as many as one in four Americans worked from home at least one day a week last year, and more than half of all businesses allowed for some form of telecommuting.

Getting to avoid traffic-choked corridors like Interstates 5 and 405 and Highway 520 is just one reason behind our nation's telecommuting trend. Today, telecommuting — and its accompanying low overhead — is increasingly being considered by organizations as a survival strategy in a down economy.

But telecommuting can also be a powerful tool for long-term results. Recruiting is easier because location no longer necessarily limits your employment pool. Telecommuters tend to have much higher job satisfaction rates, and as a result, much higher retention rates. Most employers also see a significant boost in productivity from full- or part-time telecommuters, largely due to the time saved not traveling back and forth to an office.

And of course, we can't forget the positive effects that less pollution have on our environment and our nation's dependency on oil.

Yet despite all the perks, telecommuting still has its challenges. Fear is often the first stumbling block: Employers fear that work quality will suffer. Employees fear that being "out of sight" will lead to being "out of mind" come promotion time. (The fact that more than 800 global executives polled in 2007 said that they believe telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers than their in-house counterparts is enough to give any remote worker pause.)

But neither concern should be an issue for self-motivated, dependable employees who don't require constant oversight. (And offering telecommuting as an option is a proven way to recruit such top talent.) Most studies show an average increase in productivity of 30 percent for telecommuters. To truly benefit from an open work environment, employers and employees alike need to de-emphasize "face time" and find value in more substantive measurements, like performance.

That's not to say that face-to-face communication is not important. Advances in technology may have made such flexible work arrangements possible, but e-mail, teleconferencing and instant messaging alone cannot build the kind of camaraderie that is essential for a team's success. It is critical that companies keep employees connected and engaged by taking some of the money they've saved on real estate and investing in events and other opportunities for colleagues to get together, socialize and interact in a meaningful way.

At the end of the day, it is your company's culture — not your technology — that will determine whether telecommuting will work for you. A competitive environment tends to create silos and guardedness — negatives in any workplace that are only exaggerated when people don't share an office. Collaboration, knowledge sharing and clear communication channels are all the more important in today's new virtual work force. Telecommuting is here to stay and will require some changes in the way we work — and specifically, the way we manage.

Paul Lambert is the Seattle practice director for Point B, a management consulting firm with more than 400 associates in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. Point B has operated as a virtual network — without brick-and-mortar offices — since its foundation in 1995.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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