Wilsker: Work by any other name

Increasingly, organizations think of telework as part of their strategy for letting employees be mobile

We still call it telework, or telecommuting, even though I have affectionately started using the term “the T-word” to describe it. When you ask people if they telework, only about 10 percent say they do. But if you ask if they work at home or in planes, trains, automobiles and hotels, just about everyone acknowledges that they are mobile workers.

Increasingly, such people don’t consider themselves teleworkers. In most organizations, that kind of activity is simply work.

The number of people who telework is growing, even though there are still a few organizations that don’t do it. Some employers don’t trust their employees, and others believe physical closeness improves collaboration. And, occasionally, at-home workers feel isolated.

The uninformed think existing technologies don’t adequately secure data when an employee is beyond the confines of the workplace. That attitude is compounded by the stupidity of those who unnecessarily remove information from their workplaces when they probably know better. Those are the exceptions, not the rule.

My continuing congratulations go out to the federal agencies that get it when it comes to telework. They include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Defense Information Systems Agency. Those organizations learned how to do it right. Support from the top down provides encouragement and the necessary technologies. Then workers realize the benefits and pursue telework from the bottom up.

There is a growing trend to hire workers who are older, live in rural areas and have disabilities, especially service-disabled veterans, who otherwise might not find employment if they had to travel to get to a job.  An estimated 40 percent of the federal workforce — the baby boomers — will be eligible for retirement in the next three years. Many will want to continue working part-time or full-time, but few will want to do it if they face a long commute to work.

Telework’s selling points have evolved in the past 15 years from less time spent in traffic, a better work/life balance, bottom-line benefits for employers and employees, and benefits to society in general, such as better air quality and less overall pollution.

Telework offers three big benefits: It’s a vital piece of businesses’ continuity-of-operations plans, a way to reduce fuel consumption and related costs, and the ever-growing — thank you, Al Gore — realization that if we don’t stop global warming soon, things on our small planet might irreversibly change for the worse.

All those benefits are cumulative. New ones don’t replace the previous ones. Instead, they add to the ever-increasing number of benefits.
All that’s necessary to see where this trend is going is to spend time with, or speak to, those who participate in it. Their enthusiasm is contagious and leaves little doubt about telework’s future.

Wilsker is president and chief executive officer of the Telework Coalition, an organization that promotes telework though research, education, technology and legislation.

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