Death of the office and rise of the telecommuter

Contrary to what's happening in some companies, telecommuting is on the rise. The concept of the 8-to-5 office is dying an overdue death as non-traditional workplaces usurp topless cubicle farms.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

Telecommuting, teleworking, work-from-home, or whatever you want to call it, is growing along with the number of hours worked per week. But here's the bonus to companies: Employees will work more hours and for less money to be able to work from home. Some companies, such as Yahoo!, Google, and HP, have recently begun to pull workers back into offices, which is the opposite of current trends of giving workers the flexibility to work from anywhere. This shift will have some effect on current telecommute numbers but the statistics in this report are based on years prior to this change.

For example, since 2012, there has been a 20-percent increase in telecommuting in the US. In the UK, the increase is more than 30 percent in a ten-year period. Broadband internet access and smaller footprint technology, such as laptops, tablets, and other types of mobile devices have made this shift possible.

Death of the Office - US and UK telework percentages through the years.


Run the numbers

Other than the convenience factor, employers and employees alike share in the lower costs that telecommuting provides. Employees who telecommute spend less money on transportation, clothes, food*, and child care than their office-bound counterparts do ($2,000 to $7,000 per year — Inc. Magazine). Employers benefit by not having to maintain large offices to house workers and bear all of the costs of furnishings, maintenance, parking, and phone services ($11,000 per year per employee - Inc. Magazine). Ecologically speaking, telecommuting puts less stress on the environment too by having fewer vehicles on the road. 

Percentage of Employers offering Telecommuting by Country

The US and the UK aren't the only countries that have jumped into telework; China, India, France, Brazil, and Germany have all joined this global trend.

The days of the cubicle farm are numbered. The days of the gas-guzzling commute are shrinking as well. Companies that don't have a telecommute policy are shortchanging themselves and their employees. And there will be a "brain drain" away from companies that require employees to sit in office cubicles toward those that allow workers to telecommute. 

Telecommuting is a huge employee benefit.

The benefit is so large that, according to a 2011 Cisco study, 45 percent of workers are willing to take a smaller salary. Seventy-eight percent are willing to forego free meals (I've never had free meals at any job) and 31 percent would take fewer holidays.

According to an Inc. Magazine poll, 79 percent of employees want to work from home at least part-time. And that same poll revealed that 53 percent of telecommuters put in more than 40 hours per week, while only 28 percent of non-telecommuters did.

Would you believe that workers who work from home are more productive? They are. In fact, workers are from 11 to 20 percent more productive, when working on creative tasks. For repetitive tasks, office-bound workers are more productive. A whopping 90 percent of managers believe that workers are more productive when given the flexibility to choose when and how they work.

Traditional offices promote inefficiency

Of course, there are always the stories of a guy (or woman) who doesn't attend conference calls, doesn't connect into the corporate network — blah, blah, blah. There are more stories of those same types who faithfully plant themselves in their cubicles. There are always going to be bad workers. You just have to cull them out. Telecommuting doesn't create more of that type; it creates fewer of them according to all of the polls and surveys. 

The reasoning is that workers are grateful for the opportunity to work from home and put in more hours and do more work to compensate for not going into an office.

There are also the built-in inefficiencies to traditional office settings: other people. Loud conversations, ringing phones, people walking into your cubicle to ask "where we're going to lunch today", "Hey, my kid has this fundraiser", or "Hey, how was your weekend?", for example.

It's not that we telecommuters don't like to talk or to visit, but idle office chit chat can bring more problems than solutions. I find that conference calls that use a shared virtual room or online conference board are far more productive than in-office conferences. IT people are notorious for getting off track and making in-person conferences very painful and unproductive.

As a nation, if US employees with telecommuting jobs worked half their time from home, the national savings would be in excess of $700 billion. The savings in terms of oil would be 37 percent of Persian Gulf imports.

Happy, happy, joy, joy

Telecommuting workers are happier in their jobs. A majority are satisfied with their companies (73 percent). Fewer telecommuters look for other employment. Telecommuters also rate corporate communications higher and believe that their management has more interest in their well-being and morale.

Happy employees are stable employees. Who wants to retrain employees every few months or deal with turnover? It looks bad to customers if there are too many personnel changes. Business is all about relationship building and if your employee population rotates often, your employees and customers can't build those valuable relationships.

Happy employees->Happy customers->Happy shareholders.


Gray beards vs. faux hawks

If you think it's only the young, tech savvy workers that want to have an alternative work environment, you're wrong. Actually, Kenexa Research found that those aged 36 to 45 are more likely to work from home. Workers who've been with the company for more than three years are also more likely to telecommute.

It's also not the folks on the low end of the wage continuum who want to bail on the traditional office. More than 75 percent of those who work from home earn more than $65,000 per year.

Have some dog food with that corporate policy

I think it's humorous that companies that sell cloud-based solutions and tout mobility are telling their own workers that they can't work remotely. Isn't that a mixed message? The cloud, for example, enables collaboration by geographically diverse virtual teams who couldn't possibly meet in a single office.

I've spoken with the CXOs of several startups and of established companies that couldn't carry on their businesses without telecommuting workers. Startups are especially in tune with the idea of virtual teams, telecommuting, and true agility. Some of those startups couldn't have begun if traditional office space were a requirement.

It's shortsighted to place roadblocks into the paths of employees who want to be more productive, who want to cost the company less money, and who want to save themselves a few bucks in the process. 

But, for those companies who want to "buck the trend" and bring workers together in a literal sense, there are some alternatives to the traditional office that might work better than individual cubicles that provide almost no privacy. For example, real estate brokerage CBRE, conducted some experiments with "untethered" office designs that allow workers to freely roam and to set up near workers with whom they need to collaborate.

I'd like to take that experiment one step further by putting forth the following idea of open collaboration where, instead of cubicle farms, a floor would be relatively open, with conference style tables sprinkled throughout the complex, much like a cafeteria or a restaurant. Around the space there could be a few privacy rooms where individuals or groups could make phones calls or have meetings. 

I, for instance, sometimes would rather sit on the floor with my laptop on a lap desk rather than slumping over a table all the time. A more open design would afford this type of work comfort. Let's face it, this is not a "beat to fit, paint to match" world. We're all different and some people work better in non-traditonal settings. 

We can't decide that, because there are a few violators out there, we have to stop all telecommuting. That's just senseless. It's like saying that because people run Stop signs, we're now going to ban cars. The violators get tickets and the rest of us stop. That's the way it works and that's the way we want it to work. 

What do you think? What would you give up to have a flexible workplace? What do you think the workplace of the future will look like given the current trends?

*Yes, you still eat when you work from home, but you're less likely to go out to eat than if you're in an office with coworkers who "want to get out of the office for lunch." Eating at restaurants is expensive.

The Infographic was provided to me by Intuit. The original Infographic.

Related Stories:

Editorial standards