If Everyone Telecommutes, What Will the Supervisor Do?

Posted: Jun 02, 2008 12:01 AM

Nearly every office I've visited in the past decade has had recycling baskets for paper. Some have baskets for aluminum cans and plastic water bottles as well.

It's enough to make you think that American corporations want to be good citizens, even if they aren't entirely green. If that's the case, you've got to wonder why so few companies allow their workers to telecommute. As gasoline prices surpass the $4-per-gallon mark, it only makes sense that companies employ telecommuting as a way of conserving energy and reducing the financial burden of filling the gas tank on their workers.

"We are hamstrung over telecommuting," says John Challenger, chief executive of the Challenger, Gray & Christmas outplacement firm in Chicago. "It is very hard for managers to let go of the idea that make sure workers are productive, you have to be standing over them."

For two decades, workplace experts have been anticipating a surge in telecommuting. Advances in technology and communication tools make it easier for more people to work outside the traditional office cubicle.

But even has telecommuting has creeped upward, less than 15 percent of U.S. workers work from home, even on a part-time basis.

Not everyone can work from home. Some people will always have to report to the factory, or the restaurant, or the retail store they work in five days a week.

Many others could work from home, if someone would just allow them. Workplace experts believe that at least 40 percent of American workers could work from home if they had the proper tools and an accommodating company.

"It just makes sense today," says Challenger. "We obviously have a lot of vested interest in office buildings and the like, but the real obstacle seems to be managers who aren't comfortable with the idea."

Challenger believes that longer commuting times, the escalating fuel costs and improved quality of life will drive more and more workers in the year ahead to seek jobs that will allow them work at home.

"There will be some workers who will change jobs simply because their current employer won't let them telecommute," he said.

He views increased telecommuting as inevitable in the years ahead.

"When companies see that they are losing good employees because they won't allow them to telecommute, those companies will change," Challenger says.

"Managers will figure out another way to measure productivity and manage people. It's inevitable."

Challenger says telecommuting will test many managers, but it is a concept with win-win benefits and deserves careful consideration.

"Maybe you only work from home one or two days a week," he says. "That might make a real difference for some people."

Workplaces today are not the same as they were 40 or 50 years ago. The smart companies are going to realize that this is a recruitment and retention tool that they can use to their advantage.

Telecommuting shouldn't be threatening to a manager. The manager who can't figure out a way to be comfortable with telecommuting is a doomed manager. Michael Kinsman can be reached at kinsman2@gmail.com