Is Telecommuting Still an Option in an Economic Downturn?

In a recent post here at WWD, Dawn Foster brought up a discussion about the direction that online freelancing is likely to take this year.  It might be interesting to look at the other half of the web working population – corporate employees who are telecommuting or plan to do so.

A year ago, the outlook for corporate telecommuting seemed optimistic.  More and more businesses and government agencies were taking the risk to allow their employees to telework.  This was good news to cubicle dwellers who saw teleworking as a way to achieve better work-life balance and for business owners to attract top talent and cut costs in the long run.

Then, the economy turned out in such a way that taking these risks suddenly became too risky.  In times like these, businesses will lean towards one of two approaches to this dilemma:

1) Innovation

Some businesses will take the economy’s current state as a cue to find innovative solutions to their problems.  According to a recent survey by Harris Interactive, around 31 percent of employers claim that they are planning to provide alternative work arrangements to their employees.  Out of that 31 percent, 48 percent are considering telecommuting as part of their plans.

This minority will be the innovators of telecommuting and other alternative work practices.  They’re the ones who will view the downturn as an opportunity to explore the benefits of telecommuting and use it as a way to maintain their competitive edge.

2) Protection

Based on the same survey, majority of employers don’t seem to think that the downturn is the best time to experiment on working arrangements.  Since more budget cuts and layoffs are on the way in several industries, some employers probably won’t risk spending their funds and working hours on telecommuting initiatives.  Their eyes would be fixed on other problems such as increasing profit and keeping running expenses low.

Even the employees themselves might want to take protective measures.  The looming threat of more layoffs might force teleworkers to assert their physical presence as a way of trying to save their jobs.  They might feel more vulnerable to layoffs because it might be harder for them to prove their performance when they’re not inside the office – especially if the company doesn’t have a proper performance qualifying system in place for teleworkers.

Whether your company tends to be innovative or protective, neither approach is necessarily better than the other.  Innovation without doing the proper research and studies first will lead to misspent money and time.  Being too protective of existing working environments and traditions, on the other hand, decreases a businesses chances of adapting during dramatic changes in the economy.  What we need in these times are solutions that are creative, well-studied, and will produce measurable results.

What are your predictions for the fate of telecommuting in 2009?  Is your company going to lean towards innovation or protection?

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