Telecommuting gets the thumbsup

Consider benefits such as peace of mind that employees can continue to work, even though they're not in the office.

As I've recently discovered, telecommuting is an option that organizations should offer and prepare for.

Responding to my recent editorial in the ZDNet Asia SMB e-newsletter (see box below), three readers gave the thumbsup to telecommuting which, despite the negatives, has tremendous benefits. One reader also offered some reasons for the lack of telecommuting in Singapore.

Read their experiences below, and if you, too, have something to share, drop me an e-mail, or write your comments in Talkback below.

Productivity gains
I work for a U.S.-based MNC in the software business, and my company is set up for telecommuting.

We do sometimes work from home when the need arises, and the company is okay with that.

Thank God for the Internet!
Three weeks ago, clumsy me missed a step and fractured my right ankle. Since Apr. 17, I've been working from home, and few people, save for my co-workers, are aware of this. I haven't been a huge fan of working from home, because I love the social interaction at work. For example, one of my first-thing-in-the-morning routines is to discuss with colleagues the cliffhangers of the previous night's TV programs. For example, did Bree's husband, Rex, really die in the Desperate Housewives season finale? Or who'll be eliminated next in American Idol?
While I don't think I've missed out much on anything that's directly related to my work, I sorely miss my co-workers, lunching at the nearby food centers and catching up on the latest industry gossip over coffee. Sure, we get to "talk" every day on Yahoo instant messenger, but nothing beats face-to-face interaction, not even those smiley emoticons. Give me someone's broad grin and laughter any time. So, while I've got almost everything I need at home to stay productive--office laptop, broadband Internet connection, and secure access to company resources--I'm looking forward to returning to the office. Call me crazy for not relishing the opportunity to work from the comfort of home, but when you've got great colleagues and a conducive work environment, remote working is a consideration only when the commute is tough.
Nonetheless, this is a reminder to employers to plan for telecommuting. Even if the company's policy does not allow staff to work from home, businesses should allow for such special work engagements, especially for staff with good reasons. Not only will this enable your employee to recover from their injuries faster, you will minimize any potential loss in productivity. So consider this as part of your business continuity plan.
Isabelle Chan
senior editor, ZDNet Asia

    But one thing I realize is most people do not know how to manage their time. For example, I notice colleagues logging in when they get home and they leave the computer connected to the company network through the night.

    Allowing staff to work from home does increase worker productivity, but I think work-life balance goes down the drain! I think people need to know how to manage their time and understand how to make good use of the ability to connect to the office network from home.

    I was working from home for about two years in my previous job, and I came up with a schedule where I would log in in the morning to clear my e-mail but get out of the house to meet friends for lunch and see customers in the afternoon.

    I think I am like you--I need the social interaction, so that schedule works perfectly for me.

    End of the day, work-life balance is very important to me, and it takes top priority. I know some companies don't like that attitude, but I actually believe if we can achieve a good work-life balance, it makes me more prodcutive at work!

    Jason Lum

    It's about business continuity
    Your piece is very timely. In fact, here in Hong Kong we had exactly that situation in early 2003 when SARS almost crippled normal businesses. I was working with a large bank, and we split our teams such that half worked from home for the period as part of the business continuity plan. With experts predicting an eventual pandemic based on the H51N virus or bird flu, this planning will be even more critical.

    Michael R. K. Mudd
    director of Public Policy, Asia-Pacific
    CompTIA Hong Kong

    Build trust and reap the rewards
    Coincidentally, I am in the midst of planning a company policy that allows my employees to work from home. I share your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of working in the office vis-a-vis working from home. Those were right on!

    I believe corporate Singapore should not shudder at the thought of working from home if they can build a measured deliverable system in place cemented by the character of human trust and professionalism.

    Well, hopefully, my company's staff will like our new working-from-home concept.

    Christopher Low
    director, Pendulab

    What do you think? Is your company set up for telecommuting? Drop me an e-mail, or write your comments in Talkback below. Published letters will be edited for clarity.

    Why telecommuting is rare in Singapore
    Personally, I think that majority of Singaporeans are not really ready for telecommuting, and the four main factors are cost, security, work culture and trust.

    1. Cost
    A quick look at the cost of Internet connection--other than from a fixed line--will cost the company. Any package that imposes a limit on data download will inevitably create an invisible barrier to the user for not using the service. Even for workers who do not give a damn about cost will be clamped down sooner or later by the accountants of the company. Now everyone is waiting if the WiMAX/WiPro/802.16 will make a dent in the cost area.

    2. Security
    The perceived cost of security will have to be factored in as well, although some introduction of security infrastructure will create so much ruckus amongst the employees that some CIO may drop the idea very quickly.

    However, I feel that a lot of work has yet to be done, such as educating users properly and selling the idea that more security need not mean more hassle or most costs. For example, a VPN login using two-factor authentication just involves paying for a yearly subscription, the digital certificate (for the token) which merely costs S$50 (US$31.85) annually, and the token itself (one-time cost).

    On top of using certificates for authentication, one can also encrypt, make digital signatures and verify documents on the go, making paperless society closer to reality. And to make it easier for users, only one password is to be remembered (as compared to password changes every other time) and a token-assisted login can be a single sign-on process, even within the Windows environment. And to prevent loss of sensitive data on the laptop, there are good solutions that can be used to encrypt the whole hard disk without seeing any drop in performance and can be protected with tokens.

    How much will all these cost? Less than S$500 (US$318.55) initially and less than S$100 (US$63.70) annually. For people using BlackBerry devices, there is also the possibility to encrypt e-mail.

    But how many people are using it? Why aren't they using it? The reasons I can give is the lack of knowledge in this area, or the wrong perception of costs, or even the wrong perception of the implementation process/costs. CIOs or even IT managers should do a quick check of the current security landscape and rethink their stand.

    3. Work culture
    How true is it that only in the office can work be done? If the same question was asked 10 years ago, telecommuting would probably be tough, but today we have AIO (all-in-one) printers, secure VPN solutions, WiFi, 3G and laptops, we do have the stuff needed to get this going.

    However, work culture is stopping all of us from telecommuting because of the lack of good management practices. What I mean by good management practice is that there is a lack of goals/objectives set for people working for bosses. With no active management, there is no framework to allow people to work from home. As for reporters and editors, it is pretty much clear cut because of the need to meet deadlines, but for the majority, there's no framework to let us know what is the minimum work to be done at home.

    Secondly, people do want to meet other people. Customers would want to see a person solve problems. What is lacking now is that the customer channels are not well-managed. If a Web site or a phone call would solve a problem, why would customers come down at all in the first place? Or why can't we send the workers out to solve their problems? I would like to envision a customer-centric industry where workers meet their customers at the places of their convenience without a need for customer counters as a last resort unless the problem cannot be solved online, such as physically spoiled products.

    4. Trust
    The one thing that the majority of Singaporeans lack is the sense of trust, and we also take good things for granted too easily. Honestly, this is a give-and-take attitude that is sorely lacking in most employer-employee relationships. Although Singaporeans are hardworking, it seems that a watchful eye is needed to ensure staff adopt such a positive working attitude.

    Even for trustworthy employees, employers like to have a tight rein over such workers, which is unfortunate to say the least.

    So the problem lies in our work attitudes and perception of work. Personally, I think that work, which is done effectively and efficiently at any place, is good enough for me (and fortunately for my boss as well).

    However, how many bosses subscribe to such thoughts? And how many people would take advantage if the bosses do subscribe to such philosophy?

    As Mr Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore's Minister Mentor) pointed out in his memoirs how Londoners would pay for their newspapers even if there was no one manning the stall in the 1940s and 50s, could the same be said of Singaporeans? Are we trustworthy enough?

    Going by how we treat maids, we do have a long way to go.

    Wilson Wong

    What do you think? Is your company set up for telecommuting? Drop me an e-mail, or write your comments in Talkback below. Published letters will be edited for clarity.