What Is Telecommuting in Today's Work Environment?

A telecommuting worker meets with colleagues via videoconference on a laptop.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, business as usual came to a sudden halt. School and travel systems shut down and sent everyone home. Businesses were forced to rethink how they would keep their workers employed, proceed with projects and pay the bills. It didn’t take long for managers, especially those prepared with advanced degrees and training, to realize that technology would make significant contributions to solving these problems.

One early answer was telecommuting. While already growing, telecommuting rapidly increased during this period and has continued to gain prevalence as a mainstream method of working and communicating. Today, telecommuting continues to shape the modern workplace landscape.

What Is Telecommuting, and How Does It Work?

The concept of telecommuting is simple: Using their own device or a company-provided laptop or computer and an internet connection, employees connect with their company’s computer network and work remotely. Files and information can be easily accessed by all involved, and meetings are conducted by conference call or via webcast platforms such as Zoom, Google Workspace or GoTo Meeting.

Since the initial shutdown periods, the idea of telecommuting has gained traction with many companies and their employees. Although telecommuting doesn’t work for every situation — physical working spaces continue to be essential for specific issues, and many jobs must be done on-site — its benefits make telecommuting both efficient and popular.

The most recent McKinsey American Opportunity Survey study found that 58% of Americans who responded had the option of working from home at least one day per week. Working remotely in their full-time position was available to 35% of respondents, and 23% of part-time employees could work from home. Only 13% of those surveyed indicated that they had the opportunity to work remotely but declined the offer.

The McKinsey report reveals that as the workforce continues to accept offers to work remotely, whether full time or for a portion of their required hours, both society and the business world have shifted, and telecommuting is here to stay.

Pros and Cons of Telecommuting

While some companies have insisted that all employees return to the workplace after the shutdowns, the benefits are proving to outweigh concerns originally raised when everyone had to go home. That said, there are both pros and cons of telecommuting.

Benefits of Telecommuting: The Pros

Not everyone can work remotely. Some jobs require people to be physically present with one another. For all other jobs, however, managers can take advantage of the following benefits of telecommuting and offer creative options to their workers:

  • Flexible scheduling: The standard Monday to Friday workweek does not have to change if employees can work independently from home or during off-hours. With flexibility in scheduling, workspaces can be used more efficiently, and employees can arrange to attend to personal matters without disrupting their responsibilities. In addition, meeting times are less restricted by business travel plans and commuting schedules.
  • Travel time and expenses: The time, effort and money employees spend on commuting can be dramatically reduced when working from home is an option.
  • Productivity: Harvard senior fellow Bill George reported in Fortune that a surprising benefit of remote work is a rise in productivity. The lack of workplace distractions leads to workers being more focused and productive.
  • Organization model: George also takes note of the effect that webcast meetings have on employees’ perceptions of their place in their organization. When there is no seating chart and everyone’s picture is the same size on the screen, employees have the sense that interactions are more horizontal than up and down.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance: With the technological improvements to systems that make telecommuting possible, employers can hire highly qualified employees with disabilities who can work remotely from day one with programs to accommodate them already in place.

Challenges of Telecommuting: The Cons

Even with a clear picture of what telecommuting is and all of the innovative responses to the stumbling blocks of remote work, innate challenges will continue to demand attention. Here are some common concerns about developing and managing telecommuting systems, workers and teams:

  • Visibility: When working away from the office, employees become much less visible to management. Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, told Vox that supervisors see their remote workers as more replaceable than those who work on-site, and that remote workers often are overlooked when it’s time to delegate important work. In Taylor’s words, “Proximity matters.”
  • Relationships: When workers are not physically present, they do not have opportunities to build relationships with others who may be able to help them reach their professional goals. The spontaneous interactions that pop up when people meet casually in the hallway can be informative but also relational. Getting to know one’s colleagues, subordinates or bosses happens infrequently on a Zoom call.
  • Customer relations: When employees are working remotely, even customer and client meetings are often virtual, which can negatively impact those relationships. Being in the physical space of a business involves all the senses and may provide insights not possible when talking to a camera.
  • Trust: When not working side by side, co-workers and supervisors may find themselves skeptical about the time and effort others spend on shared projects or assignments. Building trust requires intentional and continuous communication.

Tips for Managing Telecommuting Teams

In 1972, NASA engineer Jack Nilles proposed the idea of working remotely as an alternative to driving back and forth to work. Even before the introduction of the personal computer and the internet, he coined the term “telecommuting.”

Telecommuting may resolve many issues such as accommodating employees with child care and health and transportation concerns. However, it comes with risks. These tips can help managers avoid pitfalls and create safe and efficient workspaces both in-house and remotely:

  • Avoid making corporate, team or departmental decisions about new telecommuting policies in isolation. Listen to and work through questions openly and collectively.
  • Analyze each position in the organization. Clearly identify those jobs that have an option to work remotely and those that do not.
  • Include the information technology department in telecommuting plans from the beginning to avoid issues with cybersecurity, ensure technological consistency throughout the organization and select the most effective and efficient software to meet workers’ and customers’ needs.
  • Set clear expectations about working hours and logging in time, and incorporate time-keeping programs into project designs.
  • Set flexible schedule policies for the benefit of the team, not just the individual. Individual schedules that are entirely independent of colleagues’ work paces and schedules can lead to conflict and misunderstandings.
  • Encourage and model informal recognition of accomplishments between and among team members.
  • Create a detailed plan for onboarding workers that includes, for example, an appointed liaison, intentional introductions and a proactive IT set-up plan.
  • When creating policies and expectations, include specifics about how management will respond to policy abuses.

Be Prepared for Telecommuting

With the innovations in telecommuting technology and its widespread popularity, managers may decide to dive headfirst into the trend, addressing problems and interruptions as they happen. But understanding what telecommuting is, as well as its benefits and challenges is key to a successful transition. If you are committed to providing a remote working option to your workers, you need to have the skills to design a solid framework and communicate its parameters with authority and clarity.

USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Master of Communication Management online degree was designed with evidence-based research to give you a strong background in communication and problem-solving techniques, whether your interest is in marketing or business efficiency. Learn how to be a top-notch communicator, ready to build up your in-house or remote team and succeed together.


Recommended Readings

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Business News Daily, “5 Work-from-Home Issues Your Telecommuting Policy Should Address”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC Museum COVID-19 Timeline

Fortune, “The Pros and Cons of Working Remotely”

G2, Top 10 Zoom Alternatives and Competitors

Harvard Business Review, “How to Set Up a Remote Employee for Success on Day One”

LexisNexis, “Telecommuting Employees: Best Practices Checklist”

Lorman, “The History of Telecommuting and How to Best Manage Remote Teams in 2020”

McKinsey & Company, “Americans Are Embracing Flexible Work — and They Want More of It”

U.S. General Services Administration, “Telework as a Team Sport: GSA’s 10 Tips