Sunday, April 23, 2006

Downsides of telecommuting

There have been hundreds of articles written on the benefits of telecommuting, but very few on the disadvantages. Although a lot of people can point to the benefits of happier employees and lower costs nothing is perfect and telecommuting does have some serious downsides to the future of a business.

In my opinion, the biggest negative to telecommuting is the loss of the informal exchange of ideas between staff. When most companies are promoting a team effort, telecommuting places employees in situations where they must often fend for themselves. When telecommuting is implemented requests for assistance or new ideas and concepts are generally circulated in a formal manner, be it email or an Intranet web site message boards. No longer can employee sit down with a colleague or walk into the boss’s office and say, “what do you think of this idea?” This results in a lack of fertilization of new ideas and concepts. Over the years, I have seen hundreds of ideas and concepts hammered out over lunchroom tables and next to coffee machines. I can actually recall a very successful new business venture that started as a joke.

Secondarily is the individual growth of an employee. The informal mentoring that occurs, or should be occurring, in every company. Employees grow within an organization by learning from their supervisors and colleagues. This education is primarily informal and individuals, in many cases, learn by osmosis, by filling in and by assisting other members of staff. Most, if not all of this education is lost in a telecommuting environment. Coupled with the informal mentoring is the constant informal reinforcement of “great job”, “well done”, usually lost in the telecommuting environment.

The third area that I believe is a negative in a telecommuting environment is in detail work. If you are in a business situation where large proposals are being written or other substantial documentation is being produced, detail changes do not happen because of the lack of convenience to implement them. Because changes generally require formal communication, it becomes easier to accept what has been produced rather than asking someone to add or delete a word or change a format, especially if the change is not truly critical.

The forth is very dependent on the individual involved. Everyone needs a break, needs to get away from their work. Depending on ones mental resolve, some people need to “leave” work in order to get a break and in this case I mean physically leave work. If work that should be done is sitting in one’s home office or worse yet on the dining room table can the individual, on Friday at 5:00 pm, stop what they are doing and leave it to complete until Monday at 8:00 am. Some people can, others cannot. The employees that cannot are not getting that needed break. Some employers may believe that they get more hours of work out of telecommuting staff. The question is, are those hours productive?

Implementing a successful telecommuting strategy for your business is much more than installing a computer and phone line in someone’s home.

Robert Berman is a business consultant specializing in business development, strategic planning, acquisitions & mergers and international sales & marketing. He has been a columnist for the National Post Newspaper under the byline of "The Business Doctor" and he has authored "The Business Buyer's Manual". He may be reached at or visit

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