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A Case for Telecommuting After COVID-19

What employers and employees should know

If your employees are working from home as a result of COVID-19, your company is not alone. Millions of people have created workspaces on their kitchen table, spare bedroom or just about any other area where they can have a horizontal surface and a modicum of privacy.

We will be emerging from this pandemic and returning to traditional work settings soon. But what if your employees don’t want to go back to the office?

This article explores the current status of telecommuting, dispels employer fears over having employees work at home and details how employees can make a strong case for not returning to your employer’s brick and mortar location.

Current state of telecommuting
Telecommuting from home was on the rise before COVID-19. Now that companies have had to adjust to a remote workforce, the trend is expected to gain increased numbers of work-from-home employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29% of people employed full or part-time worked at home at least occasionally prior to COVID-19.

Previously, telecommuting was largely a perk of executives, utilized by sales and other professionals, those that did not need a central office such as farmers, or those tied to tech savvy industries such as IT. However, government stay at home/work from home orders have expanded telecommuting into industries and companies that had no such program in place prior to COVID-19.  Research-based firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of the U.S. non-self-employed workforce (about 75 million employees) have the capacity to work from home today.

Telework today is being implemented globally to reduce the need for costly office space, gain efficiencies, reduce costs of an on-site workforce, recruit and retain global talent and resolve work/life balance issues. With far fewer cars on the road, expanding telecommuting will have a significant impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Employer fear and myth busting
Not all employers in industries that could take advantage of telecommuting do. Despite evidence to the contrary, some business owners and managers cringe at the thought of a remote work-from-home staff.

According to Sara Sutton, founder and CEO of telecommuting job site FlexJobs, objections include:

Myth: Telecommuting is unmanageable. Overseeing telecommuters is manageable, but it is a different way of managing a workforce. Many companies were caught off guard during the pandemic without a plan in place for people working from home. Bosses not used to overseeing remote teams may not be familiar with video conferencing technology to check work progress. Obstacles can be overcome and should not stop companies from utilizing telecommuting. “If companies always held back from changing the way they do business,” Sutton said, “we’d still be using typewriters, secretarial pools, and rolodexes in the office.”

Woman working from home on a video call

Myth: Telecommuting only benefits the employees. While it takes effort for a company to adopt a new management approach and there are initial costs to setting up a telecommuting program, flexible work has been shown to be a benefit for both employer and employee.

Here is some solid evidence of work location flexibility benefits for employers detailed by Sutton:

+ Cost Savings: Cisco reported that through telecommuting, it is able to save $277 million every year in time and productivity. IBM slashed real estate costs by $50 million through telework. Sun Microsystems saves $68 million a year in real estate costs.

+ Productivity: A Stanford University study found that “call center employees actually increased their productivity by 13 percent when allowed to work from home.” AT&T remote workers work five more hours at home each week than their in-office coworkers.

+ Reduced Absences: The American Management Association found that organizations that implemented a telework program realized a 63 percent reduction in unscheduled absences.

+ Increased Recruitment and Retention: 82 percent of job seekers said that they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options. A Stanford University study found that telecommuting reduced turnover by 33 percent.

+ Emergency Preparedness: During Hurricane Sandy, McGraw Hill was able to maintain operations by having employees telecommute from the safety of their own homes, rather than shutting its downtown Manhattan offices for a week during and after the storm.

Myth: Telecommuting is uncharted territory. While even earlier examples exist, the term telecommuting was coined in the early 70s. In 1996, the Federal Telecommuting Initiative was passed, with the goal of increasing the popularity of telework arrangements, especially among government workers.  By the mid-90s, it’s safe to say telecommuting had taken off. Tech companies began to focus on improving technology, which ushered in streaming media and web-based meeting platforms for online collaboration. Today, government agencies and private companies large and small are offering telecommuting options.

Myth: Telecommuters goof off at home. Statistically, productivity among teleworkers is higher than office counterparts. However, goals and expectations must be managed no matter where a person works from.  Managers should embrace tools which enable remote communication, and reconfigure traditional meetings and informal communication to online meetings and check-ins with work-from-home teams.

Making your case
If you are already working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you have an advantage. There is an opportunity to prove how productive you can be in this new work arrangement. Before making the pitch to your boss, make sure you have a few things in place that will strengthen your request.

Define your work space. If you haven’t done so already, create a dedicated home workspace and let others know when you are there and working. My family knows my office is like a recording studio. There is no red light, but when the door is closed, I am at work, which means do not disturb.

Other times, when I am finishing up a project in the evening and the TV is on next door, I put on a noise cancelling headset. Jan Lindborg, a remote worker for Dell, also recommends turning off your laptop or computer at the end of the day to delineate between the work hours and your personal life. 

Tracking your productivity. No one is watching over you at home, so you must be your own task master. This is an opportunity to be disciplined in your work habits and maintain high productivity.

If your company uses project management software, great, keep it updated with your progress. If not, keep an updated and prioritized list of tasks. This can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or a simple to-do list app that includes deadline reminders.

Optionally, you could use your own work or project management software. This review from Capterra lists the top 10 free work and project management apps.  I like Freedcamp when working with a client who doesn’t have project management software because an unlimited number of users can participate, it works on any platform, has good reporting features and unlimited storage on the free plan. File upload size is limited though, so don’t plan on sharing long videos with this tool.

Start tracking your work and projects now. This is something tangible you can show productivity when making your work-from-home request.

Decide how much telecommuting you need or want. You may find going into the office once a week keeps you connected by having face to face interactions. Or, it may be a big hassle and interruption to your week. Point being, telecommuting doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Think through what works best for your type of work. You could telecommute as needed on large projects, stay home two or three days a week, or full time.

Negotiating with the boss

+ Make sure you have asked for his/her time in advance.

+ State your objective clearly, such as “I would like to discuss with you continuing to telecommute after the quarantine is over.”

+ Focus on the benefits that telecommuting would offer your employer, not you. One example: “Studies have shown that telecommuting increases productivity, and I have found that to be true.” Then give examples from the work you have been doing. Include that you are more focused, and found the on-line meetings with co-worker more targeted. Explain how telecommuting will make you a more productive, focused and engaged worker.

+ It’s rare to find a company that has too much space. Point out how the space you would have taken up in an office or desk could be repurposed.

+ Share that you have an office set up at home (even if it is a corner of the guest room). Mention any tools you have contributed such as a home computer, upgraded camera, and antivirus software for files.

+ Anticipate objections, such as,“how will I know you are working?” There is still a high level of accountability, it is just handled a little different. You can say you will keep your calendar updated just like you would at the office- marking when you are out to lunch or have a meeting scheduled and are not available. In addition, offer check in calls, and ask to tie into group meetings by video conference. Mention productivity and reporting again, too.

+ If you still get push back, ask for a trial period or a reduced schedule. You could go to the office Tuesday through Thursday and work at home Monday and Friday, which are also the busiest traffic days. Less time spent commuting will potentially give you more time for completing reports.

Final thoughts
Telecommuting is a great solution to continue business operations during a pandemic, natural disaster or other event, but can also provide many benefits to companies and employees in non-emergency times. Businesses can take an intentional approach to work-from-home plans, reducing costs and expanding their workforce by not being tied to a fixed location. Employees who are not on the road have more personal time for a better work-life balance, while helping to reduce carbon emissions for a healthier planet.

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