Making the case for telework

Most companies still resist the idea but Internet attorney Eric J. Sinrod says technology advances make this a no-brainer.

perspective Why do most companies still resist the idea of letting employees work outside of the home office?

Working remotely offers obvious advantages, not the least being it helps employees avoid wasting time they could otherwise devote to their work. Yet only 16 percent of the people working in the private sector believe their companies let them telecommute, according to a new CDW study.

There are strong arguments in favor of telecommuting or what is also referred to as "telework." Commuters face significant increases in traffic congestion in all 437 metropolitan areas in the United States. Adding up all the associated costs, the Texas Transportation Institute earlier this year concluded that gridlock cost US$78 billion annually in terms of 4.2 billion lost hours, not to mention 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel.

But this is more than a matter of statistics.

People who need to care for their relatives can better perform in their jobs when they have the flexibility of working at home. What's more, employees working remotely can carry on in the event the headquarters gets shut down by the unexpected. This could take the form of a natural disaster, like an earthquake, or be manmade, such as a terrorist strike.

Some employers might be worried that out of sight also will be out of mind--meaning less productive if not kept under the watchful eye of supervisors. This doesn't necessarily hold up to closer scrutiny.

The numbers bear that out. About 74 percent of telecommuters in the private sector believe they would be able to continue working after such a disaster. Only 28 percent of the people working at jobs without telecommuting options said they could make a similar claim, according to CDW.

The foregoing is not theoretical. When an elevated section of freeway leading to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed earlier this year, companies with telecommuting programs in place were better able to continue normal operations than companies without such programs. The same held true during the 2005 New York City transit strike.

Companies that buy into telework also can connect with many more customers. With employees located outside of the main office--and even in multiple time zones--the company's no longer bound by the limitations of regular business hours.

A couple of other advantages to note: A prospective employer also can choose among a potentially wider pool of applicants. Also, the corporation can reduce overhead expenses by paying less for office space.

Remember the adage about happy workers being better workers? It's not just an adage. Indeed, CDW found that employees with the option of telecommuting are more content with jobs than otherwise.

Interestingly, 40 percent of private sector IT managers state that their companies actually do have written policies for telecommuting, while even more, 49 percent, report that they are willing to provide technical support to employees working out of their homes. Those numbers are north of the 16 percent coming from all private sector employees who believe they can telecommute. Apparently, the word is not getting out fully to employees.

So, why are more companies not offering telecommuting programs? Part of the explanation simply might be the historical mindset that employees must be physically present to be considered truly on the job. Indeed, some employers might be worried that out of sight also will be out of mind--meaning less productive if not kept under the watchful eye of supervisors.

This doesn't necessarily hold up to closer scrutiny.

Just because an employee is physically present at the employer's place of business doesn't prevent goofing off. It certainly does not mean that an employee will be constantly monitored. There's a sensible way to measure remote employees. Employers can establish objective performance benchmarks to ensure desired productivity and the actual work done by remote employees can be monitored remotely online.

Employers would be smart to consider telecommuting programs for certain classes of employees who could benefit themselves and their companies. But they also would be wise to consult with counsel to develop the best possible programs under the law, ensuring that the rights of the employers and telecommuters are safeguarded.

Eric J. Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris. His focus includes information technology and intellectual-property disputes. To receive his weekly columns, send an e-mail to with "Subscribe" in the subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only, and it should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

This article first appeared on ZDNet Asia's sister site CNET