What Is Telecommuting?

An employee is telecommuting with her baby in her lap.
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Telecommuting or working from home is a flexible work arrangement that enables an employee, a consultant, or a contractor, to work distantly from the employer's location all or part of the time.

Telecommuting is also an option for bad weather days and days that require an adult present in the home for events such as furniture delivery days, furnace cleaning days, and mid-day doctor appointments.

Telecommuting is challenging, depending upon the employee.

Some employees separate work and personal lives successfully; others may require the separation that a work location offers.

Sometimes, only allowing the employee to telecommute for a time will answer this question, but generally, independent, self-starters will succeed while telecommuting.

With the advances in technology in recent years, employers have wide open options in considering telecommuting for employees.

Who Can Telecommute?

Clearly, your employees who run a cash register or clean the bathrooms can't telecommute, but who else should or should not? Good jobs for telecommuting are not always clear and not always dependent upon the particular job.

Independent workers: Employees who work well alone and don't depend on face to face contact can often work from home. These are usually exempt employees, but non-exempt employees who work well alone can also work from home as long as they track their hours carefully.

Employees who support multiple offices: If you have 6 locations and one HR manager oversees them all, it can make sense for her to have her office at home. She can call people just as well from her home office as she can from an office in one of the locations. Other support organizations such as accounting and finance that support multiple groups can also work well at home.

Outside salespeople: If your sales people frequently travel, it often makes sense to support them in a home office - it cuts down on traveling when they don't have to, and it allows them to complete paperwork at the end of the day. Many companies already utilize such a system for their outside salespeople.

Inside salespeople/call center employees: If your employees are on the phone all day, asking them to work out of a home office saves costs for the company. You can use technology to monitor the work of such employees easily.

People who work in teams: While many teams need to interact face to face, or in close proximity, to accomplish their goals, even these employees can occasionally telecommute. Whether this is once per week or when there is an emergency need, such as a sprained ankle, or a broken washing machine, depends on the nature of the work and the needs of the entire team. It's a rare exempt, office based employee who can never work from home.

Managers: Often, companies don't like the idea of managers working anywhere but in the office. They believe that managers will have difficulty overseeing employees if they are not in the office. But the reality is, managers should manage by results and not by face time.

Managers who have people who typically telecommute are the top choice for managers who work at home. Even managers who must work on site most of the time can occasionally work from home. For example, a grocery store manager needs to work at the store most of the time, but she has paperwork that she can do from home from time to time - although generally on an emergency basis only.

Telecommuting Is Not for Everyone

While telecommuting is an excellent solution for many employees, it's not for everyone. Some employees cannot handle the freedom and responsibility that come from not having to face a boss every day. Some people need regular interaction with coworkers to create high-quality work.

Some managers cannot manage without seeing their employees on a regular basis. This style is neither good nor bad.

Some companies thrive with a highly interactive culture that are difficult to achieve through email, instant messages (IMs), and Skype.

These needs are neither good nor bad; they are just different. Each company needs to decide what make sense for the business and for their employees. Then, if remote work is an option, employers need a telecommuting policy to guide the actions of employees. 

Sometimes Telecommuting Is Not a Choice

Organizations that wish to retain employees who are experiencing life events that make coming to work each day impossible might want to consider allowing the employees to work remotely.

Examples of this include:

  • the employee’s spouse accepts a good job in another state,
  • a spouse decides to pursue an advanced degree at a university in a different location,
  • a former spouse moves the children three states away, and the employee wants to live closer to the children, and
  • an employee starts a family and needs to move to his hometown for the help and the social support system family can provide.

In a second instance of limited choice, courts have held that telecommuting can be (but isn't necessarily) a reasonable accommodation for a person with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So. if an employee with a disability applies to work from home all or part of the time, the employer must consider whether the request is reasonable for the employee in their job.

Reasons are endless, but in each case, the employer needs to consider whether the employee can effectively work the job and produce the necessary outcomes remotely. The employer, based on its experience of the employee, needs to determine whether the employee and teleworking are a good match.

Telecommuting isn’t a good match for every employee, and it’s not a good match for every job. But, it’s a viable option for valid reasons, and you need to consider it for your employees.

Also Known As: telework, working from home (WFH), working at home (WAH), e-commuting, e-work, remote work