INDIA (ZDNet India) - Sneha Vyas, a writer at a dot-com, who was home on a break from her office, thought she could telecommute to catch up with some urgent work while at home. Unfortunately, a slow dial-up left her with no option but to cut her leave short and get back to work earlier than she had planned.
Telecommuting, which promised to be a boon for employees like Vyas who want to work from home, and for employers who are looking at savings in premises costs, office overheads, labor and increased employee productivity, is being given the thumbs-down the world over.
The concept of telecommuting existed much before the real technology boom, which brought it into the spotlight especially in the US. Most global blue chip companies offered their employees a tightly controlled version of telecommuting in the form of entire departments or sectors. Smaller companies, to whom the benefits of telecommuting would have been relatively larger, still stay clear of the concept.
There is tremendous scope for telecommuting, or working from home, especially for the IT industry, thanks to the nature of work involved -- coding, software development, data entry, Web design, and medical transcription, among others.
Employees based in cities like Mumbai, where it takes about two to three hours to travel to commercial centers, or those that have a poor transport network, would save on hours of productivity by telecommuting. It could also have benefits to a lot of people who have PCs at home to be employed.
Radhika Rajan, CEO, Indiantelejobs.com, a free site that aims to promote the concept of telecommuting in India says: "India has a large number of knowledge workers who due to social and geographical constraints are not available to potential employers. (Women for example, who have remain at home for their family, or those unable to relocate to a new place). Telecommuting will remove this barrier between employers and employees."
"Companies stand to gain tremendously by employing telecommuters by way of direct savings on real estate costs, relocation expenditure, commute time of employees and other associated costs of having an employee in the office. Moreover, telecommuters are generally available at a lesser cost to the employers," adds Rajan.
Surveys have demonstrated that telecommuting improves employee lifestyles, recruitment and retention capabilities. It also helps reduce energy consumption, pollution, and the need to downsize; while facilitating globalisation of services, and helping maintain balance between work and family life. In spite of its potential, telecommuting in India hasn't caught on at all and only a handful of companies offer it as an option. Hewlett-Packard is one of the very few with a few alternate work options like flexi-time, telecommuting, half-day-home and half-day-office and job-sharing (where the company hires two persons for one post allowing a part-time arrangement between them). NIIT has also embraced the concept of telecommuting and flexi-time, especially when it comes to women employees who have just had a child.
Datamatics Technologies passes on data-entry assignments from its international clients to its network of vendors working from home. Datamatics picks and delivers the assignments from the vendor's doorstep.
Says Rajan of Indiatelejobs.com, "Telecommuting exists in India in its primitive form - the Resident Manager profile. Forbes Marshall who have a very good telecommuting marketing setup, Monsanto Chemicals India, India Software Group (a Birla Group IT company), Maars Software have successful telecommuting programs in place."
India has become a hot destination for a different form of teleworking or telecommuting, which involves back office services like AFS and World Network Services (WNS), back-office operations set up by Swissair and British Airways in India and remote processing such as medical transcription.
Call centers are considered as a form of telecommuting set up by companies in the US and Europe, who outsource work to countries like India who have a large pool of skilled workers. They take advantage of the time lag and cheap labour in India to reduce the cost of running the same operation in their own countries. But these organisations are more likely to have entire departments outsourced rather than allow individuals to telecommute and do the same work from their homes.
In addition, sites like telelabor.com, a 'foreign labor' portal offer cheap labor from developing countries like India to companies overseas, as Indian telecommuters are far cheaper than their counterparts in US.
Right here in India, the newly launched Indiantelejobs.com aims to help telecommuters in India look for jobs and work from a home office.
"We have noticed that there is a good response from telecommuting jobseekers though not much from employers," says Indiantelejobs' Rajan. "However we haven't yet started promoting our site and are in the process of adding additional features."
Anurag Srivastava, director of the People Department, Talisma Corporation says that employees can do a part of their jobs from home on a selective basis where it is possible. "Allowing employees to log in and answer mails from home has certainly increased productivity. For example, replying in real-time to a customer based out of US, which has a different time zone, can be done from home and employees need not come to office for that. So in that sense employees can figure out the hours they wish to work out of home and out of office." In India, few can even distinguish what telecommuting is and often confuse it with freelancing. When we talked to several professionals for this article, they said they telecommute occasionally, only to find out that what they were referring to was freelancing.
But most Indian IT corporates such as Infosys and Wipro, prefer to keep away from telecommuting. Chairman Narayana Murthy has cited low teledensity and slow Internet access speeds as the main reason why Infosys prefers not to offer a telecommuting option for their employees.
Slow dial-up connections, low PC penetration and Internet connectivity are obvious reasons why telecommuting is failing to take off in India. It's also on the decline even in countries like the US where it is easy and fairly inexpensive to have a high-bandwidth connection at home like DSL or cable modem.
Maintenance of machines in remote locations, for example updating machines with current software, patches, is easy to do with users in one location on a LAN but difficult with telecommuters who use a dial-up to access the Net from home.
Data and network security is the biggest challenge for organisations that provide remote access to sensitive information online. Without a personal firewall, a telecommuter's computer at home is an open invitation for hackers to access information off the home hard drive or use it to find their way to break into the corporate network.
At home, antivirus software tends to be less rigorously updated, and encryption, is generally neglected. The recent Microsoft hack attack via a pilfered telecommuter ID in October was a wake-up call for a growing number of corporate security managers and organisations.
The solution to this could be to formulate a strict remote access policy, which tells telecommuters what they can and cannot do on their machines and how to physically protect them like storing confidential files on servers, and encrypting sensitive documents.
"We have taken safeguards such that only managers can avail of this facility as of now and connection is through a secure server," says Srivastava. "Passwords are given to a select group only," he added.
Measuring a telecommuter's productivity is another problem that organisations face. That is why IT-related work, which is project-oriented, is probably better suited to telecommuting than other types of work. It is certainly easier to monitor productivity when the work is result-oriented, as opposed to control-oriented. This makes for a more mature and realistic productivity environment in a telecommuting situation.
In addition to the above issues, Radhika Rajan feels that clear-cut HR policies such as recruitment of the right person, privacy, payments etc need to be formulated. There are more reasons for organisations to not want to support telecommuting. Surprisingly, there seem to be a few takers among telecommuters too.
A professional who was a vendor for Datamatics some time back says: "No doubt telecommuting is great as you get a lot more time to get work done, the simple reason being the distraction of other people constantly asking me questions is gone. But you can't do it forever because businesses still haven't adjusted to the idea of working from home as being a viable alternative. Being at home, you totally lose touch and daily contact with your peers."
"I do not agree that it has caught on even worldwide," says Talisma's Anurag Srivastava. "Telecommuting is unpopular because it does not take care of social needs of employees which is one of the most important factors while working. Secondly, employees are hesitant about using it due to insecurity and their own feeling that others might think they are not working. Work means time spent in office for most. Thirdly, employers have not worked out a mechanism to monitor performance. Fourthly - infrastructure is not present and connectivity is an issue. Broadband has still not made a presence in the company."
"Indian social norms have hitherto said that a person has to 'go to work' to be considered an earning member of the family. Traditional mindsets have failed to recognise the potential of home jobs." Radhika Rajan is optimistic when she adds "But with the younger generation becoming Net savvy and more open to modern ideas, we feel that this scenario will change soon and telecommuting is poised for a growth in India."
Most telecommuters also feel that managers are reluctant to lose control of their employees. Even though studies indicate that employees can be more productive, managers seem to believe that if they can't see an employee that they are wasting company time. Until that perception
changes, telecommuting will not be as prevalent as it should be.
"The mindset of employers and employees as far as the regular 9-to-5 'office' job is concerned needs to change. Potential jobseekers have to be informed that a telecommuting job offers the same security, authority and responsibility that go along with a regular office job," says Rajan.
Telecommuting: The road ahead
Infrastructural barriers aside, telecommuting hasn't been a success worldwide because mindsets of organisations as well as employees not being able to adapt to and accept this different work practice. Though telecommuting has the potential to reduce organisational overheads, security issues will always hold companies back from permitting individual employees to telecommute.
Numerous call centers and medical transcription set-ups that have sprung up in the last few years indicate that telecommuting will exist but only in this form, creating new niches for poorer countries in the global market for software.