When you can read your e-mail at the beach, hold a videoconference in your dining room and chat with a co-worker from a doctor's waiting room, is there finally a new definition of "the office"?
The numbers say yes.
Teleworking -- working remotely at least one day a week -- is on the rise, driven by businesses desperate to cut costs, a new emphasis on the green movement and the increasing availability of a high-speed Internet connection. Today, more than 34 million Americans telecommute at least occasionally, and that number is expected to swell to 63 million -- or 43 percent of U.S. workers -- by 2016.
"The recession just may have moved teleworking from being a cushy perk to becoming a business necessity," Miami employment attorney Richard Tuschman recently told a group of employers considering telework arrangements.
Managers typically resist out of fear of losing control of employees. But now, businesses desperate to save money on office space or reluctant to pay a new hire to relocate are allowing, sometimes even forcing, workers to set up a home or virtual office -- either on a part-time or a full-time basis.
When the recession hit, some telecommuters panicked and retreated back to the office for face time. Yet, many workers -- about 70 percent of people in service businesses -- say they still work remotely at some time, says Kate Lister, author and telework expert. In the future, more companies will be agreeing to creative telework or virtual arrangements on a trial basis, she says.
If telework is the future, here's a blueprint for success:
Needing more space, Western Union looked for options to expansion. It launched a pilot program in 2008 called iFlex to allow 15 percent of its South Florida workforce to telework up to three days a week. The company crunched the numbers and figured out it saves $3.2 million over five years in real estate costs and other expenses.
"We discovered telework is an excellent solution from a capital standpoint," human resources director Sara Baker said. "We also found from an employee perspective that it not only saves the employee money, but they are more productive, more engaged, and use less sick leave."
Tuschman, the lawyer, recommends having a telework policy and making it clear who is eligible to work out of the office. Someone who needs a lot of prodding would not be a good candidate.
Ken Erdberg, a Western Union information technology director, supervises two teleworkers and believes that specific management skills are necessary.
"You need to trust your employees and manage by results. A micromanager would not fit well," he said.
Russell Correa, a human resources consultant, works remotely from South Florida for a New York firm. He previously worked at Corporate Counseling Associates' main office. Correa uses instant messaging and video chatting for spontaneous conversation with co-workers.
"Sometimes it's not just about work. I'll chat for 10 minutes about things like what mood the boss is in today or other workplace gossip that takes place in physical office that telecommuters lose out on," he said.
Correa also finds that technology can help manage perceptions, allowing his manager to see him online and view him as being constantly contactable.
How do you monitor employees who work from home and judge their performance?
Karen Korner, vice president of marketing at DAS Group in Hollywood, Fla., says her ad agency is looking to close two of its offices and make employees work from home, an alternative to layoffs. She wonders how she will ensure that they put in their hours and get their work done.
"I am concerned about the guy who will play a nine-hole round of golf on my nickel," she said.
Ideally, companies with telework arrangements measure productivity rather than hours. Correa shows his productivity by creating a weekly "What Russell Is Up To" report and e-mailing it every Friday -- not only to his manager but to his teammates, too. He says it includes a detailed review of his activities for the week and sets up action steps for the upcoming week.
"It's a nice system of accountability," he said.
Once employees start working remotely, good communication becomes critical. There must be a discussion about how a boss and employee will communicate and how often. Correa says he addressed this with a frank conversation with his boss, asking: "How can I remove the barriers that get in your way of thinking I'm available?"
Jodi Clausen, a teleworker at Western Union, says she communicated more during a management change, conveying her value to her new boss: "My costs are less because I'm not there everyday and my productivity is just as good."
Consider expenses and liability: Most companies continue to pay for the basic equipment and services employees need to work at home or on the road.