MANILA, October 26, 2005
 (STAR) By Carla Paras-Sison - Telecommuting, also called telework, flexiwork and flexiplace, is the ability to do your work at a location other than your primary workplace.

In the United States, Public Law 106-346 (Fiscal Year 2001 Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act) defines telecommuting as "any arrangement in which an employee regularly performs officially assigned duties at home or other work sites geographically convenient to the residence of the employee."

With the popularity of laptops, high-speed telecommunications connections, and the advent of pocket-sized or handheld communications devices, many employees today can work almost anywhere at least some of the time.

Ruth L. writes abstracts (structured summaries of technical reports and published journal articles) for one of the largest outsource service providers in the country. She has been home-based since 2002.

"It really has a lot of advantages for me because my work requires a lot of analysis. I can work at my own pace and at a time most convenient for me. I save both time and money since I don’t have to commute to get to my office in Makati. I also save on office clothes since I can work in any attire at home," she says.

Writing an abstract requires a lot of concentration, first to understand the technical article, and then to draw out the most important points for the summary. Before her employer shifted her project’s workforce to telecommuting, Ruth experienced the hassle of traveling a full hour from Parañaque to reach her office and when she got there, she was not really prepared to start working immediately.

"It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I’d just sit resting at my workstation, frazzled from the commute. Sometimes, I like working very late at night or close to midnight, which is something you can’t really do at the office because it will be too dangerous to go home after work at those hours. Telecommuting has increased my output and I always meet my quotas and deadlines, as agreed upon with my employer when I signed up for home-based work," Ruth says.

Reylito A.H. Elbo, a management consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused specialty, recommends telecommuting as a solution to the perennial traffic problem in the metropolis.

"Telecommuting can minimize the number of workers during rush hour. It works wonders for me as a highly mobile consultant. It increases my job satisfaction. I do my best when I work late at night. That’s when my Internet connection works to the best of its ability. Avoiding the stress of battling the daily traffic grind and the overlap with the standard workday of my clients was adequate to allow coordination at daytime and to be my daughter’s driver to school at the same time," Elbo says.

"Telecommuting really is what we need in this world where traffic jams look unsolved," he adds.

Maxie Ventura-Garin of SAS, a software company, says the cut in travel time has increased her productivity and efficiency. "For example, after meeting with a client in Makati, I can just stay there and send my reports from any of the Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity)-enabled coffee shops there. I don’t have to go back to our head office in Ortigas. I can just proceed to the next meeting also in Makati and not lose time traveling back and forth," she says.

It helps that SAS has provided each telecommuting employee with a laptop and very clear start-of-year key performance indicators or KPIs to provide support and guidance in their work. "Of course, telecommuting means you don’t get credit for working overtime. You are project-based so your performance is measured by your output or results and not by the amount of time you put in. The expectations are also generally higher because being given such independence shows the high trust the company has in you," Ventura-Garin adds.

The telecommuting workforce also has a different set of challenges. Although her employer provided Ruth with a personal computer for home use, she pays for her own Internet connection. But the savings from the commute are worth the extra communications expense. "I have DSL (digital subscriber line) but that’s just my preference. I really don’t need DSL to work from home. A dial-up connection will do," Ruth says.

While telecommuting favors independent workers, it may not work for jobs that require interaction with officemates. Ruth says if she were a beginner at her work, she would be needing a lot of guidance from a supervisor, an editor or a project manager and telecommuting will make work difficult since there will be limited opportunity to ask questions.

"Since there is no face-to-face interaction, you can’t brainstorm or resolve problems with a quick discussion. You have to call them by phone and sometimes they’re not available. If you are office-based, your supervisor will always be there to guide you," Ruth says. This is why only those with two to three years’ experience as abstractors have been qualified for telecommuting at her company. The beginners have to earn their spurs at the office first.

According to the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), "Managers and supervisors are key players in the telework process. They set the parameters of the telework arrangement and define telework for their organizations. Studies show that clear guidance and direction increase the chances of success for telework programs."

The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) in the US found that telecommuting results in increased productivity and worker retention. AT&T, which has more than 25 percent of its workforce telecommuting on a regular basis since 2001, has found fewer people taking sick leave, better worker retention and higher productivity since making telecommuting an option to employees.

Although work-at-home arrangements may increase an employee’s home utility costs, this is balanced against potential savings to the employee resulting from reduced commuting, childcare (during the period the employee would otherwise be commuting to and from work), meals, and clothing expenses.

"It is important to address issues of concern expressed by employees who do not telework. There may be issues regarding fairness and equity in work assignments and ensuring that office personnel are not expected to undertake all new tasks that arise during the course of the day. Teleworkers may fear being forgotten or overlooked for choice assignments, training opportunities, or promotions. These issues should be discussed as frequently as necessary at staff meetings with everyone in attendance," says the OPM in its website,

"The use of group e-mail notifications is important since they minimize the risk that someone will be left out of the communication loop. Obviously supervisors need to ensure adequate office coverage at all times. A computer-based schedule for all employees to input scheduled events, leave, telework days, etc., can be most useful. It will give everyone access to a master schedule and help make certain office coverage is in place. Meetings should be held on the core day when everyone is in the office. The supervisor’s challenge is to ensure balance between the needs and desires of employees who telework and those who do not," the OPM adds.

Telecommuting is feasible for the following: work that requires thinking and writing such as data analysis, reviewing grants or cases, and writing regulations, decisions, or reports; telephone-intensive tasks such as setting up a conference, obtaining information, and contacting customers; and computer-oriented tasks such as programming, data entry, and word processing. Positions included in a US government-wide project on telecommuting conducted in 1990 included writer/editor, scientist, investigator, psychologist, environmental engineer, budget analyst, tax examiner, and computer scientist.

Some work may not be suitable for telecommuting. This is the case for jobs that require the employee’s physical presence. It is also true for jobs in which the employees need to have extensive face-to-face contact with their supervisor, other employees, clients, or the public. Positions that require access to material that cannot be moved from the regular office may not be suitable for telecommuting. Also, there may be security issues that prevent the work from being accomplished at an alternative worksite.

The American Telecommuting Association, the oldest and largest membership organization for people who are telecommuters, or who would like to be, summarizes what it calls the "win-win-win" benefits that arise from telework as follows:

• First, the individual and family benefit from saved time, lower commuting expenses, reduced stress, more scheduling flexibility, greater satisfaction regarding work, and the pleasure of spending more time together;

• Second, the employer benefits from greater productivity, loyalty and job satisfaction, a stronger focus on job performance, better recruiting and longer retention of the most productive employees, and reduced overhead, facilities and utilities expenses because the office-based workforce will not require a huge space; and

• Third, the society, as a whole, benefits from reduced traffic congestion, minimized air pollution, lower requirements for (and strain on) transportation infrastructure, and decreased demand for scarce and non-renewable resources like fossil fuels.

Is it high time for more Filipino employers to consider telecommuting to achieve new gains in workforce productivity and efficiency?

"If we Filipino managers continue to turn a blind eye to telecommuting, maybe it’s just that we’re too old-fashioned and cannot get enough of our traditional hold and control of our workers to ensure their productivity," Elbo says.

I Can Serve Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit organization dedicated to high-impact information campaigns on breast cancer, runs a counseling hotline for breast cancer patients and their caregivers. The hotline is manned by volunteers who are survivors of the deadly disease.

The hotline calls are forwarded to the desired alternative workplace, often the home, of the month’s assigned volunteer. The arrangement, though, has caused a few instances of confusion, such as one time when an eager helper picked up the phone in lieu of the volunteer who took a bathroom break and promptly greeted the caller with, "Good morning, can I serve?" instead of "Good morning, this is I Can Serve."

Nonetheless, this telecommuting arrangement has been ongoing since the hotline was activated in 1999, helping hundreds of women and their family members cope with the challenges of cancer treatment. I Can Serve stands for Information on Breast Cancer and Other Services.

If a non-profit foundation can serve hundreds of callers via telecommuting, perhaps employers can now explore this option to help thousands of their employees improve their overall performance, in addition to solving the humongous problem that metropolitan traffic is.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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