The Advent of the Mobile Employee: Opportunities and Challenges

Kathy Leck

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Less than twenty years ago, if you told a Manager that they may be supervising or collaborating with teams in office and at home, in a different city or even in different time zones, the idea would have seemed improbable.  Business in the classic sense preferred face-to-face collaboration and the practice of managing a non-mobile workforce daily, in the presence of an onsite manager.

Enter the era of mobile technology and the ability for workers to telecommute.  This rapid technological transition occurred in the last decade and coincided with a significant change to the global economy.  At first glance, organizations would not fathom the concept of the remote worker but as fiscal constraints were applied, it began to make sense to optimize work space and economize by allowing some workers to telecommute from home.   At inception it is a win/win scenario for both employers as well as employees, who consider the ability to work from home (even part time) to be a lucrative benefit or perk.

If employers are saving money by allowing employees to telecommute, and employees are reporting improved job satisfaction and productivity, what are the possible detriments to an organization that embraces the opportunity of the mobile employee?  How common is this practice in contemporary settings?

  • In 2010, the Telework Research Network reported that 2.8 million employees (2% of the American active workforce) telecommuted more than 50% of the time.  This reflected salaried workers and not entrepreneurs or self-employed contractors.
  • Forrester research reported 34 million people around the world worked from home at a part time to full time rate in 2011.  In the same report, they predicted 63 million people would be telecommuting by the year 2016.
 Sources: Telework Research Network, WorldatWork


The Advantages

Telecommuting is popular with employees as it generally provides a number of key benefits, including reduced travel time, cost of commuting (parking, gas or transit fees) as well as offering a less hectic work week.   While there is no indication that employees are less productive from a home office versus onsite, there is a tremendous perception of job satisfaction when the stress and cost of commuting is reduced or removed from the equation.   This is particularly true for urban centers with extended commuting times, traffic or inflated transportation costs.

In short, employees save money, reduce stress and commuting time and appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a better quality of life as a result of part-time to full-time telecommuting.   Employers benefit from a productive and satisfied (and better rested) employee as well as reduced facility costs for space, computer equipment and furnishings.

So why isn’t everyone doing it?  Is it suitable for every role or does it have a negative impact on the function or cohesion of the team overall?   

Four Challenges for Management of a Mobile Workforce

  • Reliability of deliverable service can be compromised by work-from-home situations.  Home offices may not be equipped with the same back-up facilities in the event of equipment or connection failure.  You can’t control the quality or efficiency of a private remote office, and that can lead to disruptions in service or deadlines.
  • Workplace Safety regulations and policy become precarious when you have a full-time salaried employee who is working from their own private residence.  During working hours your employee is engaged in activities that are difficult to supervise and can leave the door open to injury or business liability for workplace related injuries.   Without an inspection of the premises how can you guarantee safety?  Custom policies and disclaimers are required to limit liability for the employer
  • The likelihood of employment fraud is higher with work-from-home situations.  A telecommuting employee could be engaged with another employer during business hours, which can lead to not only a loss of productivity and performance, but also payroll fraud.
  • Disengagement from the team can lead to behavioural changes in telecommuting employees working in isolation.  Teams can feel disconnected from remote workers and even from managers who opt to telecommute frequently.

At a macroeconomic level, there are advantages for American businesses which are significant enough to consider telecommuting as a viable, cost saving measure.  In 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act allowed provisions for remote workers in the United States, predicting that the evolution of the mobile workforce would present opportunities for both government and private sector to save on everything from public transportation to road repair, commercial office space and maintenance as well as reducing carbon emissions from vehicles.

All indicants point to an increased shift to mobile work and telecommuting practice in the United States.  What advantages or disadvantages do you think that will have on leadership and management style, practice and policies in the future?  Share your insight with us.


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