Telecommuting

Telecommuting refers to when an employee works in a location other than the company’s offices or project sites, whether it be their home or another location. Typically, the employee works remotely, but connects with colleagues via phone, email or video chatting (i.e. Skype), rather than in person. Working remotely is often hailed as “green” because it reduces commuting via vehicle, which burns fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases.
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Benefits of Telecommuting

Telecommuting has many benefits, which have been proven by several studies. They go beyond environmental to include major cost savings and increased happiness and productivity among employees.

Environmental benefits. Working remotely is sustainable because generally, it takes cars off the road, which cuts down on carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The National Resources Defense Council’s Justin Horner estimates that the country’s 5.2 million telecommuters are saving 10 million barrels of oil per year. If companies that currently allow their employees to work remotely once a month expanded this to once per week, oil demand would decrease by 23 million gallons. This would save workers $1.9 million in transportation each year.

Similarly, in 2010, Undress4Success estimated that if all workers were allowed to commute half of the time, it would take 7 million cars off the road and reduce oil imports from the Persian Gulf by 28%.

Cost savings. Both employers and employees can save big from a work-from-home policy. A Telework Research Network found that employers can save up to $10,000 per year by allowing an employee to work from home half the time. The savings come from reduced commuting time (and thus more working time), reduced sick time, higher productivity and more effective time management, energy savings from office equipment, reduced furniture and space needs, and lower employee turnover.

The same study found that employees can save between $2,000 and $6,800 per year if they work remotely half the time. This is because of savings on gas for their cars, lower food costs, and fewer expenditures on business attire.

Sun Microsystems, a company that has had a work-from-home policy for 19,000 of their employees for 14 years, performed a study on their workers. They found that the policy, which allowed the employees to work from home at least once a week, saved the company an estimated $64 million in real estate costs alone. Employees save 120-180 kilowatt hours of energy per year, which translates into $2.5 million in electricity annually. Plus, employees saved $2,335 per year in transportation costs and saved themselves 107 hours of commuting per year (the equivalent of three weeks of vacation!).

Happier and more productive workers. While employers may find it hard to believe, workers report being more productive when they work from home. Microsoft released the results of their study in 2010, which showed that 60% of employees from companies across the United States believe that they are more productive when they work from home.

Additionally, employees who work from home may be happier because they are spending less time and money commuting. A 2008 study by Telework Exchange found that 84% of Americans use their own means of transportation to get to and from work, and spend 264 hours and about $2,052 per year commuting. Twenty-eight percent of Americans want a job that requires less travel time, the study showed.

Barriers to Telecommuting

Though working remotely has many proven benefits, telecommuting has grown very slowly in the United States. Between 2005 and 2011, the amount of workers who telecommute only grew by less than 1%, from 1.9% to 2.5%, according to the American Community Survey.

This is because telecommuting faces several challenges, which have hindered it’s widespread adoption. These hurdles include:

Tax laws. When an employer and employee are located in two different states, they can run into problems with taxes. Tax laws differ across states, and sometimes, the state requires that the employee’s taxes are based where the company is located. In other states, the employee’s taxes are based on where the physical work is done, and whether or not the worker is telecommuting out of necessity or convenience. These laws can result in not only higher taxes for both parties, but also confusion (with potential need for professional help) and more paperwork.

Misconceptions about productivity. Employers may be hesitant to offer work from home policies because they believe that working remotely reduces productivity and keeps the employee out of touch with the rest of the office. However, a 2012 University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the opposite is true. Workers are more distracted and less productive when in the office because of constant interruption; moreover, this interruption-based loss of productivity is found to be more significant than the reduced interactivity between a telecommuter and his or her colleagues. Further, working from home prevents these unnecessary interruptions, which increases productivity.

Similarly, as mentioned above, a Microsoft study found that 60% of employees believe they are more productive when they work remotely, but only 15% of them thought that their company would support a telecommuting policy. This shows a gap between reality and what employers perceive to be true, which could be closed with better information about telecommuting and productivity.

Security. Employers may be wary of telecommuting because of the security of their data and files. Allowing employees to work remotely potentially means allowing them to work outside of their secure, internal networks, or allowing access to computers outside the office (which, in the wrong hands, could become problematic). This fear may be especially prevalent in more data-sensitive industries, such as banking or government. However, there are some strategies that can help companies that allow telecommuting to maintain privacy and security, such as allowing employees to use a company laptop, requiring secure passwords for home networks, and using “thin clients”.

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