Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    There are still some wrinkles to work out, but telecommuting is becoming more viable

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #312  October 17, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Does the traffic seem worse than ever? Instead of sitting and fuming, you might want to consider whether your job (and your employer) would be amenable to telecommuting--working away from the office, but keeping connected using computers and telecommunication tools.

    Take this column, for example. I'm typing it on a notebook computer in my living room, on a Friday night, while the kids are watching bad sitcoms a room away. When it's done, I will send it to BIV as part of an Internet mail message. Through these sorts of technologies, I can produce a weekly column, while needing to stop by the office only once every couple of months or so.

    Other jobs will need more active connection with data on computers in the office--but it's becoming more and more common to connect right into the office network, or even, using remote control software, to actually run applications located on computers in the office. With the right hardware and software, you're no longer limited to data or software that's on your computer at home.

    In one form or another, telecommuting is a growing fad. An estimated 40 million North Americans work at least some of the time outside a traditional workplace. Cell phones and laptops have helped make this trend possible, along with the rise in software and hardware aimed at small-business and home-office users. Much of this technology has been aimed at people whose jobs take them on the road a lot--sales reps, for example.

    Recently, Burnaby's GDT Softworks, for example, has been working with the Cantel Mobitex network, offering a cellular modem package, InfoWave, which allows travelling workers to stay in touch with their data at home office from anywhere in Canada, even when they lack a phone jack to plug in a more traditional modem.

    Another variant has seen jobs move from a centralized head office to satellite offices, closer to where employees live; BC Tel has been moving jobs to these sorts of offices, cutting workers' commute time. Alternatively, companies can get employees out of the office entirely. When computer manufacturer Compaq moved its sales staff out of headquarters to work from home, they reported a $10-million drop in costs combined with a 20-per-cent productivity gain. Obviously, not every job can be carried out at home, either totally or partly, but more jobs may be 'telecommutable' than you think.

    While the idea of working at home is popular, telecommuting does give rise to many questions and potential drawbacks. Who buys the equipment? Will your company spring for a computer, a fax machine or fax modem, and software? How about a desk and extra phone line, or insurance on the home office and equipment? (Estimates suggest the initial cost of getting set up to telecommute is about $5,000, with another $2,500 per year to maintain the home worker).

    Does workers' comp cover you if you trip and break a leg while getting a cup of coffee in the kitchen in the middle of your workday? Can you handle your own computer problems, far away from the company's support network, or the computer-savvy co-worker? Is your data as secure on your home computer as it (hopefully) is on the company network? Will you miss the social contact with co-workers in a busy office? Who's taking care of the kids?

    One of the false attractions of working at home is the possibility of doing away with childcare. But reality soon returns--you're not going to be very productive trying to do your job and take care of kids at the same time, and both will suffer. Will the dog barking at the letter carrier interrupt an important business phone conversation? And does working from home really mean that your workday now extends from morning until late at night? No more leaving the work behind you when you leave the office.

    A question for many organizations is how best to manage home workers. Traditional time clocks are no longer appropriate--telecommuters become more like consultants, paid by results.

    Despite the potential problems, it seems likely that we'll see more and more people telecommuting. Successful telecommuters are happier and more productive, while saving money for their employers, who no longer need such large offices. And everyone we can keep off the highways into town is, of course, benefiting us all by helping to reduce air pollution and rush hour traffic.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan