UK: AT HOME IN THE OFFICE. - If self-discipline isn't your forte, telecommuting isn't for you.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If self-discipline isn't your forte, telecommuting isn't for you.

Last year British Telecommunications ran a major campaign designed to convince employers of the advantages of 'telecommuting'. Other interested parties, too, have been touting the benefits of telecommuting for years past. Yet its adoption by British industry has so far been slow. Does this mean that consultants and technology suppliers are seeking to drum up business simply for their own ends? Or are employers missing a chance to do themselves - and their employees - a good turn?

From the employers' viewpoint one probable advantage of telecommuting is a reduction in fixed overheads. For staff, obviously, it promises to abolish time spent in unproductive and expensive travel to work. It also simplifies the introduction of flexible working. The latter, as advocates of the post-modern office are quick to point out, can be important to many female employees, allowing them to combine a full-time job with responsibility for home and family. Maggie Marr, an advertising sales executive with the Insider Group, a leading Scottish business publisher, used to divide her week between home and office. When she became a telecommuter she was able to maintain links with colleagues and customers via a PC link and call diversion facilities. 'Telecommuting enabled me to utilise my time more effectively,' she says. 'By cutting out travelling, I added two hours to my private time every day without cutting into business time.'

So what are the drawbacks? Well, for one thing, managers may feel less in control of operations. And it may not be easy to reproduce in the domestic environment the stimulus of working in a team. Being 200 miles from his colleagues didn't suit Sean Montgomery, Scottish regional sales manager of a national newspaper. 'I felt very isolated and missed the thrill of sharing a new business win. I found it impossible to continue motivating myself day in and day out.' Eventually Montgomery switched jobs, joining an Edinburgh advertising agency as an account director.

The computer industry is an obvious candidate for conversion to telecommuting. Neil Duguid, a director of Prince Computer Services, is accustomed to dialling-up (over an ordinary PSDN line) the operating systems of clients anywhere in the UK and solving problems for them. But while appreciating the advantage of flexibility, Duguid points out that this carries a penalty. 'The difficulty is knowing when to stop as well as when to start - you must be very disciplined.' Moreover telecommuting is often not used to its full potential. 'I travel to see my clients more often than is strictly necessary,' Duguid admits. This is because personal contact is seen as 'a mark of professionalism'. Telecommuting is beginning to gain acceptance in the South East, he believes, but is still regarded with suspicion in Scotland and the North.

Possibly for reasons of distance, its acceptance seems to be greatest across the Atlantic. Leslie Crabtree is a senior manager with Compucare, a big US healthcare records software company. When Compucare closed its Florida office she successfully argued against relocating to Virginia, and now manages staff in cities as distant as New York and Chicago, and even Spokane in the far Northwest, from her home. Crabtree would not consider returning to conventional patterns of work. 'I spend an hour in the gym every morning when I would have been driving to work. Telecommuting technology means that we have not had to uproot ourselves just because my employers' plans changed.'

Marr, back in Scotland, has had no problems with self-discipline either, nor with self-motivation. 'I get more done in the same time than I would have in the office - and the more you get done the more motivated you are.' Clearly the character of a business and its geographical spread both have a bearing on potential for telecommuting. But the critical factor may be the personality of the individual. Many people can cope with isolation - writers and journalists have long done so. Others need a sociable environment for their working lives. Telecommuting can be a liberating option, for both employer and employee, but it can also be lonely for the long-distance worker.

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