Telecommuting Is Not Cure to All Workplace Ills

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As fuel prices rise, interest in telecommuting does as well, as I wrote just last week. My blog mentioned several companies that were adding or expanding telecommuting options for their employees in response to high prices at the pump, and also to attract talented folks who may not want to relocate for a job.


Yet some early advocates of telecommuting are beginning to question the practice, eWEEK points out. Among those recalling telecommuting workers to the office are Intel, AT&T, HP and some federal government agencies. And IBM, which lets 40 percent of its employees work outside the office, participated in a telecommuting study by Northeastern University professor Jay Mulki.


AT&T and HP recalled workers in an effort to consolidate operations. Concerns over the potential loss of sensitive data over non-secure network connections led the feds to scale back telecommuting. Intel said it hoped putting more workers in the office would improve team relations.


There is growing evidence that physical proximity may make it easier to collaborate with colleagues, as I wrote in March. A number of companies, including HP, Intel and Cisco, are promoting intra-office collaboration by tearing down cubicle walls in favor of open work areas filled with conference rooms, tables and armchairs.


Mulki's telecommuting study found that telecommuters felt isolated from their co-workers and experienced difficulty in attaining a work-life balance. The latter finding is ironic, since a better work-life balance has long been touted as a major benefit of telecommuting.


I personally find that working from home, which I do regularly, makes it all too easy to extend my work day. Yet it also gives me the flexibility to stay home when my 7-year-old is sick or school's not in session.


Blaming telecommuting for work-related stress is kind of like blaming that pint of Ben & Jerry's in your freezer for weight gain. John Estes, a VP at recruiting specialist Robert Half Technology, tells eWEEK says that workers who struggle with work-life balance tend to do so whether or not they telecommute. He says:

If you're wired 24 hours a day with a BlackBerry, it can be hard to resist the temptation to check your e-mail during dinner or on vacation. This can happen to anybody.

Full-time telecommuting is "one of those things that can sound better than it actually is," says Estes.


I'd agree. While I wouldn't want to work for a company where telecommuting wasn't an option, I feel happier and more productive when I'm at the office at least a few days a week. It's easier for me to stay home when I need to, however, because my work is largely a one-woman show.


Mulki suggests that workers should utilize their own social networks and technological tools to avoid feeling isolated. I do both. A supportive manager is also important, he says.


I'd add that supportive co-workers also make a difference. A co-worker at a previous job complained at length about the fact that I was allowed to telecommute and he wasn't -- instead of taking it up directly with a manager. His passive-aggressive approach made me defensive and didn't help his case.