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Telecommuting Becomes Easier in an Era of Permanent Connectedness

February 9, 2010

Originally Uploaded by daryljames

by Daniel Taylor

Both employers and employees are discovering the benefits of telecommuting, and the practice is becoming more common as web connectedness increases and companies pare costs.

Vancouver, British Columbia-area health services authority Fraser Health said two weeks ago that its telework program has been a net positive for employees and the Vancouver community. Employees reported being happier with the new telecommuting arrangement – available to medical transcriptionists – and were driving less, reducing traffic and pollution.

Philip Barker, Fraser Health vice president of information management, said that the program ensured that “employees are happy and work as efficiently as possible with the added benefit of reducing [Fraser Health’s] overall carbon footprint.”

The health services provider estimates that telecommuting reduced travel on Vancouver-area roads by 40,000 kilometers, or 24,850 miles. Employees also saved about $20,000 on gas.

Productivity increased, as well: Employees polled said they were 20 to 30 percent more productive as a result of the telecommuting program.

Fraser Health, like many workplaces, is finding that telecommuting is more viable in an era of always-available internet access.

Recent years’ technological developments are making telecommuting easier and changing workers’ expectations about work venues: The rise of web-connected smartphones, in particular, has spurred work-from-anywhere ventures in companies of all sizes.

Smartphone sales rose sharply in 2009, research firm Gartner said last month, even as the larger economy faltered. Sales of the devices jumped 23.6 percent from 2008 while total mobile device sales declined 0.67 percent. By 2013, Gartner anticipates, smartphones will represent 38 percent of all mobile device sales, up from 14 percent last year.

Apple iPhones, Research in Motion BlackBerries and Google Android devices allow internet connections from anywhere and untether employees from their desks, analyst Ted Schadler said in a recent report for Forrester Research.

“Smartphones and laptops unshackle work from location,” he wrote.

But Schadler raises a potential problem with the work-from-anywhere phenomenon, suggesting that employers may be expecting too much of their always-connected employees. He quoted findings saying that 81 percent of smartphone users are on the devices at home, 62 percent use them while traveling and 64 percent surf or send email at their desks.

While employers can count on getting more productivity from smartphone-equipped employees, it’s unlikely that those workers get paid more, Schadler said.

But many employees are willing to make the tradeoff between constant connectedness and a better work-life balance. In a survey performed by IT industry group CompTIA, 78 percent of executives believe that their offices will become more reliant on telework in 2010.

Some companies have relied on home-based workers for years: airline JetBlue uses home-based employees to staff its customer service hotline, for example. And while the nation slowly pulls itself from the depths of recession, companies will look to cut costs wherever possible. If some of a firm’s workers can be home-based, the firm can occupy a smaller office. Other companies may see telework as a guarantor of increased employee productivity.

Further driving telecommuting uptake is the increased prevalence of netbooks and tablets. Apple is widely believed to have a tablet up its sleeve, and low-cost tablets were a theme at the latest Consumer Electronics Show. Meanwhile, most major computer companies have netbooks available today, and many can be equipped with 3G internet access like the kind smartphones use.

For many companies and their employees, telecommuting is becoming a smart idea.

Fraser Health president and CEO Nigel Murray called telework “a win-win for everyone.”

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